We were driving through La Marsa, an upscale suburb north of Tunis, when we passed a bombed-out mansion on the crest of a hill. The two-story cement structure with a flat roof had once been a multi-bedroom luxury home decorated with Arabesque window frames and ornaments. Now it was a gutted, chalk-white, graffiti-covered shell.
La Marsa was an interesting place. Ben Ali had maintained three gargantuan palaces there, and the neighborhood was home to other members of his family. In the days following Ben Ali’s January 14 departure from Tunisia, as the Presidential Guard assassinated Tunisian citizens at random, vigilante gangs roamed La Marsa’s streets, destroying police stations and the luxury homes of Ben Ali’s and Leila Trabelsi’s families. Remarkably, admirably, they kept their destruction focused on the Ben Ali and Trabelsi family properties, and left the other residents of La Marsa, including prominent RCD officials, in peace.
“Who lived here?” I asked about the bombed-out mansion.
“This house belonged to Ben Ali’s daughter,” Zied said.1
He pulled the car to the curb and I got out and crossed the street.
There was a woman waiting on the corner for the bus. I said bonjour. She pointed to the house.
“C’est finis,” she said, sounding tired and a little sad. “C’est finis.”
I wondered if she meant the house, the Ben Ali regime, or Tunisia’s past as a miserable dictatorship run by a thieving family. I couldn’t tell, and my French wasn’t good enough to ask.
The former hilltop mansion was a boxy, two-story cement structure with a chimney and a front door. Its destroyed condition had transformed the big, flat white wall on the side of the house into a canvass for Tunis’ graffiti artists.An artist named Jaye had signed his name to a painting of the words AMOUR, GLOIRE ET BEAUTE. The words were rendered in giant puffy letters of bright orange, purple, green and blue, and looked like they had been squeezed from tubes of paint. Jaye had claimed a copyright for his work with a little “c” inside a circle.
Another artist had painted a finely detailed silhouette of a football player finishing off a bicycle kick. But the round object sailing off the player’s foot was not a ball; it was a stenciled likeness of the disembodied head of Ben Ali. Ben Ali’s head was tilted slightly to the left, and it almost smiled, perfectly expressing the dictator’s obliviousness. It was a fun image, the kind Banksy might have made, and I wondered if the British street artist had in fact come to Tunis to leave his mark in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.
I walked through the space where the gate in the perimeter wall had been, and entered the grounds. There was broken glass and debris strewn everywhere. Every step I took made a crunching sound.
Everything inside the house was gone—the furniture, the light fixtures, whatever had once covered the walls. There was graffiti everywhere.
On a ground-floor pillar, Jaye had signed his name to the phrase, AUTANT D’ARGENT ET AUTANT DE MAUVAIS GOUT… AHAHAHA—a dig at the ruling family’s wealth and bad taste. On a nearby wall there was a Che Guevara quote (THE PEOPLE UNITED CANNOT BE DEFEATED). Through a rectangular cut-out in the front wall, where a window used to be, KASSERINE, the name of one of the interior towns where the revolution began, was painted on the inside of the perimeter wall in simple, blood-red letters, like a one-word anthem.
I climbed the stairs and walked onto what had been the deck. Now it was just a flat surface in the open air. Its only remaining attribute was its commanding view of the Mediterranean. Down on the street, two men in orange vests were parking a backhoe.
I suddenly felt exposed standing there, enjoying the commanding view, so obviously trespassing on what might be state property. When one of the workers caught my eye, I offered a feeble wave and wondered if I was about to get in trouble.
But the worker in the orange vest smiled, gave me a thumbs up, and went back to attending to the backhoe.
A moment later Zied joined me. We stood on the deck for a few minutes, taking in the view. The burned out hulk of an SUV sat on a small concrete pad in the back yard, every inch of its metal skeleton blackened and rusted by fire. What had been the back yard swimming pool was now a cement basin filled with more debris.
Standing there on the former deck, it felt as if the mansion had been destroyed not just by a roaming mob, but also by some larger, ineffable force, and that the presence of that force lingered in the air. I felt awed by its power, and bothered by the faint voice in my head telling me that, having been here once, that force could always come back.
“Maybe we shouldn’t hang around here?” I said to Zied.
“Eh, this house belongs to everyone now,” he said.
Still, after a few more minutes, we both agreed that we should go.
We drove to another destroyed Ben Ali family mansion, this one further inland and out of view of the water. It was partially hidden behind a higher wall, still had at least one window, and had not been graffitied. The perimeter wall was sealed, so we couldn’t go inside. Instead we drove to the back alley, looked up at the mansion’s top floor, and tried to peer through a hole by the bricked-up former entrance to the garage.
The second mansion apparently belonged to Leila’s nephew Imed Trebelsi. (For those just joining us, Leila Trabelsi, Ben Ali’s second wife, came from a family of drug dealers, arms merchants, and all-around low-life scoundrels. Tunisians were disgusted that their President had married into a family of gangland criminals, and had then allowed his new in-laws to pillage the country’s wealth. One could see, in Ben Ali’s second marriage, the beginning of the end of his regime.)
Imed Trabelsi’s destroyed house was less of a visual spectacle, but it came with a better story. Zied explained that, in true eccentric gangster fashion, Imed kept a pet White Tiger on the premises. When the mobs came to destroy the house, they killed the tiger, roasted it over an open fire, and ate it out of spite for the Trabelsi family.
Perhaps the story is too fantastic to be true. I don’t have a second source for the roasted tiger story. But a July 27, 2009 State Department communique released last fall by Wikileaks reported that Sakher el-Materi, the husband of Ben Ali’s daughter Nesrine, kept a tiger in his mansion in the coastal resort town of Hammamet, and that he and his tiger planned to relocate to a new mansion in La Marsa in 2010. Perhaps the house belonged to el-Materi, and the tiger was his, or the house was Imed’s, and the angry mob brought the tiger there for the barbecue.2
It doesn’t matter, because in a sense the story is true, even if it never happened. The detail of one of La Marsa’s roaming gangs dining on the bar-b-qued carcass of Imed Trabelsi’s White Tiger illustrates perfectly the revolution’s violent reversal of power, and the cathartic release it offered to Tunisia’s long-suffering population. It’s true in the sense that all great fiction is.
There was a lot to love about the Tunisian revolution. It had been swift, peaceful, and poetic in surprising ways. So it was hard to know what to make of the bombed-out mansions of La Marsa. They were symbols of a controlled, understandable, and well-directed revolutionary vengeance, but they had also been the scenes of violence.
“The crowds only destroyed the police stations and the homes of Ben Ali and his family,” Zied told me, when were back in the car. “But imagine how the residents of this neighborhood must have felt in those days.”
“They must have been terrified,” I said.
“Yeah,” Zied replied.
We drove to a bombed-out nightclub on the water. Its glass front wall, that had once offered a spectacular waterfront view, had been blown out, as if by a bomb. The inside of the club was a stripped-down, empty mess. There had been a roof deck, Zied explained, where a DJ spun records as guests partied and danced.
I was starting to feel that if you had seen one ruling family’s destroyed club or palace, you had seen them all. They all left the same impression—that history had come calling, putting an end to an obscene reverie and leaving these scenes of destruction in its wake. You also felt that whatever force had wreaked such havoc could easily come again.
I had the same sense, at other times, that the forces that had transformed Tunisia were not yet finished with the country. People talked about the revolution in the braided language of hope for the future and worry that the revolution was being blown off-course, that the ghost of the former ruling party might somehow reappear. The police patrolled Avenue Borguiba in riot gear. We saw two fist fights on the Avenue, both of them over parking spaces. The tension in the air was invisible, but you could feel it.
Zied and I watched the second of the two fistfights from the balcony of Capitole, the restaurant that had become our usual stop for lunch. When the police had broken up the fight, drawing its spectacle to a close, I asked Zied if the constituent assembly elections schedule for late October might be a catalyst for more protests, more clashes, and perhaps more violence. The elections would gather an assembly to draft a new constitution, but it had occurred to me that they could go wrong in a hundred ways, and in a country already on edge might become the source of greater instability.
In such moments you wanted to pray for Tunisia as it traveled from its former criminal dictatorship toward its uncertain future. I wanted to do something useful, or at least find a way to articulate what that useful thing might be. But it was hard to find the answers. The revolution had been a peaceful, even noble, affair, and yet more than 200 martyrs had lost their lives. Everyone we talked to said the revolution wasn’t over yet. It occurred to me that in October, during or after the constituent assembly elections, the revolution might return, with all of the beautiful, inspiring, and hopeful power of its change, wrapped, as it had always been, around the danger of potential violence.
“Yeah,” Zied said, returning to his meal, “I think October, it will be a hard month.”
1 My notes record this exchange, but news stories on the internet indicate that the house belonged to Imed Trabelsi, Leila Trabelsi’s playboy nephew. I prefer see the discrepancy as another example of the rumors and stories that swirl in post-revolutionary Tunisia, which sometimes contradict each other but still tell a consistent story of the regime’s mysterious workings and the revolution’s gift of chaotic and uncertain progress. Either that or my notes are wrong.
2 See footnote 1, above.