We entered the offices of La Femme Democratique through a pair of wooden French doors. They opened onto a hallway that was narrow, painted white, and decorated with Arabesque tiles along its baseboards. There was a poster in the hallway of a woman wrapped in the Tunisian flag. The red crescent and star fell off her shoulder, her softly focused head was turned to the left, and she gazed into the distance.
“We rose up together, let’s build together,” Zied said, quoting one of its Arabic lines.
When she joined us, Mariem Zeghidi, a La Femme Democratique officer and spokeswoman, led us to a conference room with a wooden door, a long table, and a bulletin board papered with notices. It had the feel of a seminar room at a liberal arts college. Mareim explained that her organization created social movements in Tunisia in support of women’s rights.
“For example,” she said, “there were the events in Gafsa, in 2008 . . .”
“You heard about Gafsa?” Zied asked me.
“Uh, no,” I said. “Where?”
“Gafsa?” Zied said.
“Gafsa,” I said.
“I don’t think so, no,” I said.
Mariem cleared her throat and patiently sighed. I felt, for the first but not the last time, that despite everything I had read about Tunisia and the revolution, I had still traveled half-way around the world to interview busy and important people about a subject I knew too little about.
“Gafsa,” Mariem said. “That’s where it all starts.”
“There were events in Gafsa,” Zied said quickly, filling me in. “In 2008 . . .”
Gafsa is a phosphate mining region in western Tunisia, not far from the Algerian border. In January of 2008, thirteen widows chained themselves to a railroad track that served one of the phosphate mills. Their husbands had died from illnesses caused by the poor working conditions in the mines. Their widows were demanding, as compensation, that their jobs to be passed down to their sons.1
Their actions sparked a year and a half of uprisings over Gafsa’s brutal economic conditions, the mining company’s poor treatment of its workers, job losses in the mines and mills, and the corruption and nepotism of Ben Ali’s regime. On some days, trade union leader Adnane Hajji led demonstrations that numbered in the tens of thousands. The authorities responded with merciless violence. They beat, shot, and arrested scores of protesters.
Volunteers from La Femme Democratique traveled to Gafsa to support the thirteen widows and their families. They found lawyers for them and offered them other means of support. During the uprisings, La Femme Democratique also offered support to women in Gafsa threatened by rape and other forms of physical violence.
“We created a real social movement to help these women,” Zeghidi said.
In Mariem’s description of the Gafsa uprisings I caught my first glimpse of a deeper story of the origins of the Tunisian revolution. I had thought of the revolution as a spontaneous uprising. But I began to see that it had been building over the course of years, in Gafsa and elsewhere. The revolution was less like a fire started by a spark and more like a train in the distance—a black plume of smoke and a glint of light on the horizon, a promise headed in from the frontier. The only question was when it would arrive.
After our interview with Mariem, I found threads of this richer story of the revolution almost everywhere I looked. Had I been able to stay in Tunisia, I could have chased them down all summer.
Haythem El Mekki, a rapper turned independent journalist, blogger, and Mosaique FM and Nesma Television reporter, was the epitome of cool. He was easy-going, generous with his time, and wore a neon green Nike T-shirt with tennis shoes clustered into an illustration of a brain. He also wore a fancy silver watch, and a thin goatee that framed his chin. As we sat in the empty restaurant on the first floor of the Hotel Carlton, he told me about the rap game in Tunisia.
Since the 1990s, social rappers in Tunisia had performed songs about misery, injustice, and alienation, but they had spoken out against the regime in indirect terms. In the years after Gafsa, Tunisian rappers like DJ Costa, El General, L’ Ecrit, and Phoenix began to speak out more directly.
DJ Kosta, for example, released “A Message to the President” and “A Royal Mafia,” critical songs that spoke to Ben Ali directly. Other Tunisian rappers wrote and performed similarly confrontational songs. They passed them around on Facebook, where they could gain hundreds of thousands of listeners without necessarily coming to the attention of the authorities.
The rap scene created a space where people could talk openly and honestly about the regime, El Mekki explained. It gave birth to a free discussion and exchange of ideas. It created revolutionaries.
I also spoke with Hichem Ben Farhat, a soft-spoken law student who organized a number of the cinema clubs, or “cine clubs,” that were popular in Tunis. Like the hip-hop scene, but for a more studious crowd, the cine clubs became a popular forum for socializing and free political exchange. All you needed was a copy of the chosen movie and a place to show it. The meetings drew between 50 and 100 people and generated impassioned discussions and debates.
The cine clubs also laid a foundation for the revolution in a surprising and beautiful way. Members of Tunis’ amateur filmmaking federations often brought their movies to the cine clubs, for impromptu, one-night-only political film festivals. They also taught video-editing techniques to interested cine club members. For years, members of the cine clubs and the film-making federations made and shared their own movies.
“When the revolution arrived,” Hichem said, “suddenly, we all had something real to make movies about.”
During the critical weeks between December 17, when Bouazizi set himself on fire, and January 14, when the government fell, the cine clubs and the amateur film-making federations sent a cadre of cinephiles into the street to shoot videos of events, edit them into clips, and distribute them over Facebook and YouTube. Their work told the country the unfolding story of the revolution.
“Every day was an adventure,” Hichem said. “We made films of the revolution, and passed them around like bread.”
On my last evening in Tunisia, a former official in the interim government’s Ministry of Information, whom I will call Ahmed, told me about a Tunisian opposition party conference he attended in Paris in 2009. The conference marked the first time all of the Tunisian opposition parties gathered in the same place. The subject of the conference was the coming transition in Tunisian politics.
“Did the conferees think there would be a revolution?” I asked.
“The older activists didn’t expect it,” Ahmed said. “But the youth, they expected it to happen soon.”
“2013.” Ahmed explained that the presidential election was scheduled for 2014, and that in 2013 Ben Ali would be 76, and would have held power as long as Habib Borguiba, Tunisia’s previous president, who had served for life. “Everyone thought it would be the time,” he said.
Because the older activists didn’t expect the revolution to come, a split developed at the conference, with the younger activists pushing to discuss specifically how the opposition parties should push Ben Ali from power, and the older activists standing back and giving vague speeches about their hope for change.
“It was very interesting to watch,” Ahmed said.
The Tunisian human rights activist Moncef Marzouki was at the conference, arguing that the younger conference members were correct. Change was coming soon, he said. Tunisia would either explode into revolution, or implode into chaos. The time to act was now.
“He was the hero of the conference,” Ahmed said. “And he was right.”
In late December of 2010, following Bouazizi’s self-immolation and the uprisings in Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine that spread throughout the country, Haythem El Mekki, the hip-hop artist turned journalist, became a vocal critic of the regime, a voice of the revolution, and consequently, a Tunisian celebrity. He posted outspoken messages on Facebook, conducted television interviews in which he spoke freely, and wrote stories exhorting his fellow citizens to join the revolution. He had never spoken out so strongly against the regime before.
I asked him why he chose that time to raise his voice.
“When Bouazizi came,” he told me, “I knew it was now or never. And many of my friends had the same feeling. We said, ‘This is it.’”
Joan Didion’s immortal line, that we tell ourselves stories in order to live, describes our manner of constructing narratives of our lives to make sense of our experience. But the Tunisian revolution made me wonder if it sometimes works the other way around. Maybe there are times when larger circumstances write the script, and we, as players in a drama, act it out.
For that was the remarkable thing about the revolution: So many people had somehow known that it was on its way. And they seemed to know, also, the part in the revolution they had been assigned to play. Hedi Baballah and Faiza Karoui rehearsing a political satire they should have known they could never perform (see Dispatch No. 3). DJ Kosta and El General singing directly to Ben Ali: Your Days are Numbered. Members of the cine clubs teaching themselves the video editing skills they would use to spread the revolution’s story. The youth and the young at heart in Paris, arguing to the opposition parties that the time to act is now. The tens of thousands of citizens of Gafsa who found the courage to join the uprisings.
They and so many others knew the revolution was coming, and also what they were meant to do when it arrived. Hearing their stories was like discovering a secret narrative that revealed a little more of the true origin of the Tunisian Revolution and the Arab Spring.
“We rose up together,” the poster in the offices of La Femme Democratique said, and it was true. That was exactly how it had been.
1 This was the account Zhegidi gave. See also, Eric Globe’s January 2011 paper on the Gafsa uprising, available here.