I first read about Tunisian comedian Hedi Ouled Baballah in an article Steve Coll wrote for the April 4 New Yorker. Coll’s article addressed Tunisia’s hopeful prospects for a transition to democracy, and the Casbah Square protests that forced the resignation of Tunisia’s first interim prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, a holdover official from Ben Ali’s regime.
In one passage, Coll is spending the day in the interim governmental office created to record citizen complaints about corruption and human rights abuses, when Baballah wanders in and is recognized by the security guards. At their request, he throws back his shoulders and performs his impersonation of Ben Ali to convulsive laughter from the hallway crowd.
“There may be no wiser revolution than one with a laugh track,” Coll wrote.
“We have to meet this guy,” I said to Zied when we were discussing potential interview subjects over Skype.
We met Baballah at the office of his producer, Faiza Karoui, in the Lac District of Tunis, an upscale business district on the road to Carthage that runs east from downtown. Karoui’s office is located in a half-constructed and mostly vacant commercial office park. Like a lot of Tunisia, it seems to be waiting patiently for a new economy to bring it to life.
Hedi Baballah is a gentle man. His sentences slide into easy chuckles, and his lumpish physique, short black curly hair, bushy mustache, and ever-present sunglasses make him look a little bit like a cartoon. Karoui is a cheerful and classically beautiful woman who smiles when she describes the ideas behind Baballah’s one-man show, his jokes, and the multi-media features and lighting she helped Baballah design. The four of us settled in around a glass coffee table, Karoui brought out water in old-fashioned Coca-Cola glasses, and then she and Baballah told us one of the most heroic and insightful stories about the revolution I would hear during my time in Tunisia.
That story starts with Baballah’s unwitting violation of the first rule of political comedy: Never mock a repressive dictator in front of his family.
It was January 2008, and Baballah was performing at a private party at a luxury hotel in the coastal resort town of Monastir. Baballah was in the middle of his Ben Ali impersonation—which in those days he only occasionally performed—when he noticed several audience members shouting “She’s here!” and pointing to a woman who looked visibly distressed.
“What’s the matter?” Baballah asked the woman. “Why do you look so upset?”
“It’s OK,” she said, waving off his concern. “You can talk.”
I should note here that Baballah’s Ben Ali impression is hilarious. It’s a beautiful bit of physical comedy in which Baballah relaxes his shoulders, grumbles in a low voice, and takes on the appearance of a life-size Muppet parody of The Godfather.
Baballah’s material is also quick and sharp. One joke, for example, turns on the well-established reputation of Ben Ali’s wife’s family—the Trebelsis—as a corrupt gang of drug dealing arms merchants. Baballah’s Ben Ali brags about his and Leila’s son. “He has my eyes,” Ben Ali says, “my uncle’s nose, and my wife’s family’s hands.” Every Tunisian instantly gets the joke of a vain Ben Ali bragging that, thanks to his wife’s family, his son was born with the hands of a thief. As Baballah performed his Ben Ali impersonation for us, Zied laughed so hard he could barely translate Baballah’s jokes. I laughed twice, first at Baballah’s completely silly caricature, and again when the jokes came through in Zied’s translation.
The audience in Monastir that night in 2008 was laughing just as hard. Unfortuntely for Baballah, the distraught woman in the audience happened to be Ben Ali’s daughter Cyrine.
Baballah was arrested the next day as he drove back from the coast. The police politique swooped down on his car, stocking it with heroin, marijuana, and fake currency as Baballah stood nearby. When they were finished, the officer in charge invited to Baballah to “come over and have a look at what you have in your car.”
“I don’t need to look at it,” Baballah said. “It’s my stuff. I know what’s there.”
“No, look in the back,” the officer told him. “I added a few more things.”
“I know why you’re doing this,” Baballah told him. “It’s your job. Do what you want. I know what I’m facing.”
After a six-hour interrogation, the police took Baballah to his home at 2 a.m., where they staged a raid with five cars, 25 officers, and a team of police dogs. They planted drugs and fake currency throughout the house, which they then pretended to discover.
“It was pure theater,” Baballah said. “Completely fake. Wrong in every way.”
Baballah was charged with possession of drugs and counterfeit currency, fined 1,000 dinars, and sentenced to one year in prison.
In prison, Baballah became a determined political dissident. He refused to sign the police investigative report. He insisted his drug test be conducted by a Red Cross volunteer he knew personally, and trusted not to lie. When the test result came back negative, the police tried to change it. Baballah also began two hunger strikes. During the second, he was visited in the hospital by two members of the Swedish Red Cross, who publicized Baballah’s case and organized a campaign for his release.
When he wasn’t on hunger strike, Baballah performed his Ben Ali impersonation for his fellow prisoners. The prisoners played along with the joke, pampering Baballah and calling him “Zine” or “Mr President.”
“They loved it,” Baballah said. “No one had ever made them laugh in prison.”
Baballah also had an idea for a new show, in which he would enlist President Obama’s help in getting back an idea he had lost in prison. “Most wrongfully imprisoned citizens ask for money back,” Karoui explained. “In Hedi’s show, he’s trying to regain something cultural, something virtual.” Baballah began developing the show from his cell, writing material and trying it out on his audience of fellow inmates.
The Red Cross, meanwhile, with the help of an international campaign by fellow comedians, put sufficient public pressure on the regime to release Baballah. He was set free on March 20, the 60th anniversary of Tunisia’s independence from France.Baballah may have emerged from prison with an inspired idea and new material for a show, but he was broke and had no way to earn a living. Karoui supported him, and when he told her about his idea for a show, and showed her some of his material, she agreed to work with him to develop its production.
“But you must have known you could never perform it,” I said.
“I knew it was a good idea,” Karoui said, smiling and nodding as if to acknowledge that anyone in her situation obviously would have made the same choice. “I just wanted to produce the show. I didn’t worry about whether we would ever be able to perform it,” she said.
She and Baballah had been working on the show for three years when the revolution arrived and liberated Baballah to perform the work.
“Thank God the revolution came on time,” Baballah said when I asked him about his prophetic determination and seemingly impossible luck.
The show, entitled Prisoner 3300, after Baballah’s assigned prison number, follows Baballah as he tries to get back the idea he lost in Ben Ali’s prison system. Along the way he mocks Ben Ali, and satirizes the interim government and the politics of the Middle East.
Baballah and Karoui enthusiastically repeated some of the jokes for us. Baballah plays Interim President Fouad Mebazaa, for example, as a man who cannot quite believe he is president. Whenever his aides address him as “Mr. President” he jumps in fright, thinking Ben Ali has returned from Saudi Arabia. He also sleeps in Ben Ali’s bed with the covers pulled up to his nose, in constant fear Ben Ali will return and find him there. In one scene that makes fun of the impressive proficiency of America’s espionage network, Baballah sits down to write to President Obama to ask for his help in recovering his lost idea, only to be interrupted by a phone call from the American President.
“I understand you are writing me a letter asking for my help!” a cheerful Obama tells him.
Karoui explained that the show celebrates the revolution, but also subtly—and without directly saying so—challenges the audience to think about whether Tunisia is undergoing a truly democratic revolution, or a process that might simply transform the country for the benefit of outside interests, or those loyal to the former regime.
It’s a perceptive critique. Before he resigned, Prime Minister Ghannouchi, who was well-regarded in some international circles, warned that forces loyal to the former regime were working to co-opt the revolution. Tunisia’s interim government has announced an October election for an assembly to draft a constitution, which may well be a step forward, but the election means no parliament or republican assembly can be elected until late 2012 at the earliest. The government has put Ben Ali on trial in absentia, but the proceedings seem more cathartic than legal, and a distraction from other more meaningful prosecutions the interim government might be pursuing, like those of former ruling-party and police politique officials who, unlike Ben Ali, remain in Tunisia.
I met a number of people in my two weeks in Tunisia who worried that the revolution might be drifting off course. “Why not have the parliamentary elections right away?” one former Interior Ministry official asked me. “Why make everyone wait until one or two years from now?” Others told me there would probably have to be more protests, to keep the interim government on track. Hedi Ouled Baballah’s show adds a satirical voice in this unsettled chorus.
Prisoner 3300 premiered at the historic Tunis Municipal Theater on Avenue Borguiba on April 30, 2011. Currently, Baballah and Karoui are taking the show around Tunisia. Later this summer, Baballah will perform the show at comedy festivals and on tour in Europe. In addition to everything else it may yet accomplish, the revolution seems likely to make him an international star.
After 90 minutes it was time to go. Karoui and Baballah shook our hands, handed us some promotional literature about the show, and led us out to the stairwell outside Karoui’s office door.
“You are welcome back in Tunisia any time,” Baballah told me as he shook my hand a second time. “I will put you up for four nights. But on the fifth night,” he added, laughing, “you’re on your own.”
“Do you have a Hollywood agent?” I asked. He and Karoui laughed. “No really,” I said. “I think you should find one.”
The day after our interview, as I waited for Zied in front of my hotel, I saw the black van that advertises Baballah’s show motor past on Borguiba Avenue. The painting on its side depicts Baballah, with his trademark bushy mustache and sunglasses, dressed in a crisp black-and-white striped prison uniform, pulling a gag away from his mouth to speak. The number of days of his confinement are scratched into his cell wall. Behind him, through the bars of his cell window, Avenue Borguiba’s landmark arabesque clock tower pokes up into the clouds, and a bright red Tunisian flag flutters in the wind.