Latest from Michael in Tunisia

Begin forwarded message:
Tunis, Tunisia
Dear friends and family,
The drama continues here, though we’re on the outskirts of Tunis, not Avenue Bourguiba, where protests yesterday and today have apparently caused members of a new government coalition to resign. There were 3 presidents in 2 days, and there may be a few more governments as the days press on. From what I’m seeing on the street or from the inside of a small yellow taxi, it looks like this:

Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011
‘Town hall’ and no tea-party crashers
I sat through a U.S. embassy ‘town hall’ meeting this afternoon. The ambassador, along with several luminaries of the fort, spoke about security, online updates, and possible evacuation. They were rather pleased that they came down on the right side of the debate this time. Normal commercial flites are resuming here, and there are no plans to evacuate anyone. However, a charter flight departed at 11.15am today for the ‘safe haven’ of Rabat, Morocco, for embassy staff dependents who, fair enough, didn’t sign up for a revolution and would rather watch it on TV from Rabat rather than from the suburbs of Tunis.

“Vive la Tunisie”
Markets bustling this morning, people are happy, “Vive la Tunisie” you hear constantly, strangers chatting, laughing, army guys less stiff, and main doors to Zephyr shopping center, Monoprix inside, were wide open. The ATM machines are working again, though there are still reports of battles between army and militia near the presidential palace yesterday. Food supply trucks were coming and going outside the public market here in La Marsa, truckloads of produce arriving, meat, fish, blood oranges, just in season. Across the street I bought fresh pasta from two ladies in white aprons, one bagging three kinds of pasta for me, the other cleaning the windows looking out to the public market, both saying to the Tunisian next me, Thank god they’re gone, referring to the ousted thieves who were running the country. The hatred of Ben Ali’s extended family is everywhere. A few minutes later, I was in the bread line at Boulangerie Bheyrout, fast and cheap. They were only selling bags of 5 baguettes (5 dinar or $3) to keep line going quickly. Last month, at the same bakery it would have taken 15 or 20 minutes, with a line resembling a rock slide, but not this morning. The tank on the corner today was adorned with a bunch of white flowers, wrapped in paper, just below the main gun turret.

Basketball break
Bigger news today in our home is that Alex’s upcoming basketball tournament, for other American and international schools around the Mediterranean – from Tunis to Lisbon – is being moved from Tunis to Rabat, starting Feb. 3. Alex didn’t play basketball today, but did the last two mornings at the other end of the corniche boardwalk, across the street from a small police station and posh optometry shop, Ray-bans in the window. And his school, is reopening this Thursday, a good sign. We’re staying put, but have travel bag and passports at the ready.

Monday, Jan. 17-
Charlie and Marilyn
Today, things feel better – only one burst of gunfire – though there were demonstrations downtown, teargas too. Here, in La Marsa, the tank is still hogging the street, and Jimmy’s café is still hopping, though the curfew will mean they’re closing about now. For pizza fans, Andiamo’s is closed since yesterday. I saw the owner at Jimmy’s and asked what happened. “No ingredients”, he apologized. But the men’s barber (coiffure) was open, the newsstand and Salem, an ice cream/gelato place on the corner, melting distance from the army tank opposite. Also open: the MGM video/DVD shop with murals outside of Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe, and the cramped hardware store with a small counter at the entrance where you ask for what you need; you stay put, they bring it.

Ten at a time
The nearby Monoprix supermarket in the little Zephyr shopping center opened from about 10 till 1pm. I noticed people walking in a side door – both main entrances were closed – so I walked in too, and saw a line of 50 or 60 people, which I immediately joined. A young French couple behind me, and a Tunisian family in front, everyone chatting away. They let 10 at a time into the market, as 10 left, supervised by the nice gentleman with a rifle next to the three busy checkout stands. The shelves were rather well-stocked. No meat whatsoever, but plenty of pasta, cheese, chocolate, no eggs, milk, juice, fruit. In fact, I called Alex to walk up with another shopping bag. I used a credit card for the first time here, though later I was able to find cash at an ATM, unlike yesterday when they were empty.

Sunday Jan. 16:
Movie theater closed
The posters are still up at our neighborhood cinema, the Alhambra, next to the defunct bowling alley, next to another beauty salon, half way between our intersection barricade and the tank. On the bill this week, Harry Potter et Les Reliques de la Mort
(& the Deathly Hallows). There are three shows daily, 5 dinar entrance ($3), popcorn and bottled water for sale, about 25 cents each. I thought they might at least have a matinee showing. Mais non. So much for fantasy in times of trouble, even if it is dubbed in French.

Students’ text messages
I’ve received several text messages from students, including this one last nite: “Mr. Michael, it is Nadia, how r u doing sir…u see how Tunisians are strong and have strong determination!! Take care of urself coz there still some chaos. g.n” (goodnite). Then, another: “I heard that our university has been burned and stolen…hope we get back to classes soon…no more persecution or dictatorship… with God willing. sweet night sir.” Since then, I’ve heard from a colleague who says, indeed, the school was a target, but only a computer room was set fire to, and no details as yet.

Saturday Jan. 15-
The tank on the corner
Two hours ago, we heard the loud, too loud, crackle of gunfire, and people on the street scattered quickly. Those who lingered (who, moi?) were quickly waved off. Jimmy’s cafe closed, along with the newsstand, bakery, and sandwich shops.

Alex and I had lunch today at nearby Dar Tej restaurant – an upscale eatery, the first time we’ve eaten out in a few days. They didn’t have too many customers, though one table of French speakers put away a ton of food, beer and wine. They announced as we entered that they were out of bread, but we sat down anyway. And at Jimmy’s next door, the tables were full all morning, although they were out of milk for cappuccinos and the like. But there was a real buzz in the air, again, all within sight of the newest addition to the neighborhood, a massive army tank parked in front of the traffic roundabout, just 20 meters from the shabby army truck, which now looks punier than ever. It arrived sometime during the night. But the mood on the street was still upbeat, and people were lining up to take pictures of each other by the tank. One father hoisted up a little girl of about four, for a picture.

Neighborhood watch was never like this
By 4pm Saturday, I talked to neighbors who say that ex-militia of Ben Ali’s were driving around in rental cars or commandeered taxis, shooting into the air, breaking into closed up markets, generally scaring anyone they can. Neighborhoods everywhere across Tunis have formed groups and erect make-shift barriers at intersections to stop the militia thugs from being able to drive around easily. And, in fact, neighbors have been gathering near our corner, which forms a small T-intersection. Both sides of the road have been blocked off with makeshift supplies, a parking lot-type chain attached to two tire stands, a few sections of tree stumps, broken pieces of fountain statues, stacks of big bricks, and even a discarded rusty gate to let friendly neighbors drive through. If they don’t know the car, they stop it, and ask the driver to open in the trunk.

The gathered group of men, women and teenagers are armed with whatever is handy: we saw a couple of baseball bats – one metal, one wood – lots of odd-sized sticks, a long-handled axe, a rusty pitchfork, a short axe slung over a guy’s shoulder, several good sized rocks, sections of PVC plumbing pipe, and one diver’s trigger harpoon. A friend saw someone armed with a tennis racket in another neighborhood, maybe a John McEnroe fan. A few people have even brought chairs to hang out in comfort, like at a kids’ soccer game. One old timer had his chair plopped in the shrubbery, with a deck of cards in front of him. But people were in good spirits again, basically standing around chatting, primitive weapons at their sides, on their cell phones, smoking of course. Two guys climbed up a lamp pole and hosted the red and white Tunisian flag. We brought water bottles out later for a couple of the night shift guys whose eyes were bloodshot.

Our press bunker
During all this, Alex and I ran into a Tunisian translator I know, Sofien. It turns out he was contacted by a German journalist, Stephen, based in Beirut who works for the German magazine, Stern, and his partner, a Belgian photographer, Bruno, with two Leica cameras around his neck and a third point & shoot for video clips. They had gone to the northern suburb of Gammarth to see what happened to the president’s wife’s property there. He said the upper floor had been burned, and the rest looted – furniture, radiators, lamps, whatever could be carried out. Family photos and documents were scattered on the floors. These guys, four in all, were all headed back to Tunis, until they realized they shouldn’t be driving around in a rental car, much favored by the thug militia guys. Then they were offered a ride back by the police, but declined with the police losing the most recent popularity poll. Plus the curfew was approaching. So, guess where they stayed for the night? We have 3 extra couches, and plenty of food. Yusef made a dinner (spaghetti tunisienne, my last bottle of Tunisian red wine, and bread which I managed to find at one of the sandwich shops). The photographer was upbeat about everything, even gunfire: “We heard some shooting over there, but not much.”


No Responses to “Latest from Michael in Tunisia” (post new)


Leave a Reply