News from a friend in Tunisia

Our Man in Tunis

Begin forwarded message:

Dear friends and family,

Forgive this mailing, but I wanted to get word out quickly regarding our place in the rapidly evolving situation in Tunisia, where Alex and I are currently hunkered down following the start of tonite’s 8pm curfew. Janet due back here next week, Melina in school at U.C. Santa Cruz. Some of the highlights of the last few days, rumors included, go like this:

Thursday, 13 January: As you may have seen, the country is simultaneously boiling over and shutting down. Lots of businesses are shuttered, but others going strong, like the little pizza joint up the street from us, Andiamo’s, doing a brisk trade just opposite a beat up army truck which is backed up across the street at the little shopping center for two days running now, with half a dozen soldiers standing around, more inside, rifles ready, and 50 or 60 feet of concertina wire (sharper than barbed wire) glistening all the way to the corner, under some leftover pink holiday lights. Really, in a civil meltdown, it’s the little touches that count! By the way, we got the Roma moyenne, medium cheese tomato and turkey. And yes, to go.

Earlier today, one rumor had it that a military coup was imminent; another that the government might cut off electricity and water. Unlikely, but that one drove me to find candles and flashlight batteries at a little kiosk store that was still open at 4pm, shelves nearly empty. It was the same at the modest Monoprix supermarket in our neighborhood this morning when I went out, long lines of people stocking up or hoarding, depending on your point of view. I was in line for 20 minutes, with pasta, chicken, water, orange juice, a dozen little yogurts and other essentials for civil unrest. The best part was that everyone was chatting away about the situation, most in Arabic and French, of course, but English too. I also stopped at the marche, a free-for-all open air public market, where I got strawberries, oranges and tangerines, potatoes, green peppers, kiwis, and a baguette. I was lugging it all home, when I ran into an American friend at Jimmy’s, a café where the outdoor tables were packed with Tunisians drinking their espresso and smoking up a storm, all a stone’s throw (poor choice of words I know) from the army guys and their truck.

One of the other stores that was still open this afternoon was the tiny Press Internationale, near the pizza place. They sell local (Arabic) and international papers (Italian, French, English), plus magazines (like Elle, Newsweek in French, National Geo in Arabic), a few school supplies, novels, cigarettes, packs or singles. A lot of people buy two at a time. You see that, and you realize people don’t have much money here, and it’s far worse in the towns and countryside to the south and west where most of the trouble is, including the town of Sidi Bouzid, where it all started, when a 26-year old was arrested and roughed up by the police for the crime of selling fruits and veggies from a cart without a permit. He died a few days later after setting himself on fire. Today, in Tunis, demonstrators set fire to some buildings, including Tunisia Telecom, the state telephone company, and a bank or two. An American teacher was also shot in the leg this afternoon after he inadvertently wandered into a demonstration. He’s already released from the hospital, and I’ve since received two phone calls from people we know at the embassy, saying to stay put. Not to worry.

Yesterday morning, Wednesday, at another café, Fayrouz, which overlooks the corniche boardwalk and the beautiful bay of Tunis beyond, I met a Tunisian friend, and a gathering group of more and more acquaintances who kept showing up. They kept adding chairs, and another table to the group, they talked non-stop (in Arabic, French and English) about the ongoing disaster, the president must go, murderers, just complete outrage. Some were visiting from Paris, including one woman’s mother, Rene, close to 80, maybe with Parkinson’s, as her head kept bobbing up and down and around. Then she’d chuckle to herself, and her fez-type hat would nearly slip down over her eyes, then she’d disappear for a moment, then sort of pop up again, usually with a pixie grin. She slowed down a bit after someone helped her light a cigarette. At one point, in fact, the four women at the table were all smoking, and, oddly, none of the 5 or 6 men. People are usually drinking either ‘direct’, or ‘capucin’, a smaller milky espresso, and the more the coffee came around, the more animated the conversations got, several at once, always a mix of languages. The verdict: guilty, the government has to go, and no one seemed worried about who might be listening. Along with cell phones and Facebook, people get information from satellite TV stations like BBC, Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and others which can’t be blocked. The govt. line is preposterous, and no one seems to believe a word. Just tonight, the president gave a televised speech, saying he was shocked by the level of poverty in the country, and he was immediately opening up the internet, allowing You Tube, and cutting food prices. I think most people will say, Buddy, you need to get out more.

I was also in two taxis yesterday, both with somewhat decent English speakers. (My French/Arabic stops at the level of shopping and making small talk.) Taxi drivers are where I get half my information about Tunisia. Last week, one said to me, ‘In this country, you say anything, nobody see you again!’ But the first driver yesterday was in a good mood, learned English as a mechanic in Kuwait in the 80’s, and was disgusted by the turn of events, the deaths, ‘for what?!’ he said. ‘For food!’ he answered. The next one, on my way back from the embassy, got more agitated the more he spoke. I basically nodded and agreed, and he kept talking, but he got more and more upset, to the point where he would take both hands off the wheel to gesture as Tunisians like to do — quickly turning both hands in towards each shoulder, then flinging them out to make his point. I was simply thinking, ‘Please keep your goddamned hands on the wheel’. But he kept on, saying the same thing, ‘For food! For food! Die for nothing’. Then, ‘bullshit’, then an apology — ‘sorry for bad word’, to which I said, ‘No, no, that’s the right word!’ I think he even surprised himself, with his swelling up of both anger and sadness. Then he mentioned trying for 5 years to get a visa out of the country – ‘impossible, every time they stamp No, for no reason. But, you have money, you get visa!’ Then the hands to the shoulders again, just before we stopped to let me out.

The curfew tonight is on till 6am, and I looked outside a while ago, and it was definitely on the deserted side. Tomorrow, Friday, there is a call for a general strike. Everything will be closed, including public transport. Taxis might be different, who knows.
More to come, though I expect the day to begin normally. Although all the schools in the country were closed as of Tuesday, Alex’s school (‘ecole americaine’) stayed open until today. They’re very likely to be closed tomorrow, too, but hopefully things will get going by Monday. We’re about 10 miles north of ‘centreville’, the downtown of Tunis, in the suburb of La Marsa. Overall, we feel safe enough. In fact, many Tunisians go out of their way to reassure us. A group even gathered up the American who got shot in the leg, and rushed him to the hospital.

One more positive note — at the embassy library yesterday I ran into a couple of my favorite students, who were trying to organize help for the families of shooting victims, probably over 50 at this point. So I have to find out more about this. –Michael


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