It wasn’t easy to get an interview with the family of Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit vendor whose self-immolation gave birth to the Arab Spring. But Zied had become friends with the family and knew how to reach them.
It turned out the Bouazizi family no longer lived in Sidi Bouzed. In late April they had moved to a neighborhood to the north of downtown Tunis. They moved because Mohamed’s sacrifice brought a constant and unbearable level of attention down upon them, complete with an unending receiving line of journalists at their door. The family simply didn’t want to keep reliving their brother’s loss, no matter how historically important it was. Tunis, like all big cities, offered the comforts of anonymity.
So the Bouazizi family wasn’t eager to give interviews, but also they were busy. During my first week in Tunisia, Manoubia, Mohamed’s mother, and the oldest daughter Leila were traveling to Paris for the dedication of a public square in Mohamed’s honor. Meanwhile, Samya, the next-youngest daughter, was occupied with her A-level exams at the French school she attended. We ran into her on the street on Wednesday of my first week in Tunisia, during a break between her morning and afternoon exams. She looked agitated and tired.
“I don’t even want to go home,” she said. “I just want to walk around.”
She talked to Zied for a few minutes, then smiled at me, said au revoir, and promised Zied she would call us later in the week.
Zied kept at it, calling every few days to try to confirm an interview time, but without much luck.
On Monday of my second week, we were having morning coffee outside the Carlton Hotel. I was scribbling in my notebook and Zied was making calls. Finally, he closed his phone and scanned the avenue, which was turning back into a bustling, congested thoroughfare.
“We should go there,” he said, “to the Bouazizi house.”
The Bouazizis live in a modest two-story cement house, in a back alley in a neighborhood where the houses are all pushed close together and some look a little worn down. Behind the cement wall along the alley, there is a patio that is partly covered by the bedrooms on the second floor. One of the upstairs bedrooms opens onto a small upstairs patio. On the day we visited, that small open space was shielded from the sun by a hanging sheet printed with elephants and leafy vines. The alley was quiet, except that somewhere nearby a dog occasionally barked and a rooster crowed.
It was surreal to there be standing so close to history in such ordinary surroundings. We only saw one other person, a neighbor on his way into the house next door who looked us over but didn’t ask who we were.
Eventually, Leila Bouazizi opened the gate and invited us into the patio. She wore a light blue Adidas track suit, offered us each a chair, and stood against a column supporting the second floor of the house. She and Zied exchanged hellos and pleasantries.
“You have 20 minutes,” Zied told me.
And so I was able to record Leila Bouazizi’s story. It was a story about how fragile revolutions can be, and how they don’t always deliver on their promises, not even to their own heroes.
Leila Bouazizi last saw her brother alive and in good health on a Saturday in November of 2010, about one month before he set himself on fire. She was home from Monastir, where she was in her second year at a fashion and clothing design college. She was leaving to go back to school, and she and Mohamed were saying goodbye.
“He filled up my bag with fruit, gave me some pocket change, and told me to finish my studies,” she said.
After he was rescued, Mohamed was transferred to the burn unit in a hospital in Sfax, a city on the coast. Leila visited him there as he lay in an irreversible coma. He passed away on January 4, 2011, only ten days before Ben Ali fled the country.
I told Leila that I understood that life in Sidi Bouzid had become difficult.
“There was too much pressure from the media, from people,” she said. “My mom was so stressed because of this. So we tried to take her away, so she could forget what happened, help her to forget the past in Sidi Bouzid.”
“It’s much better here,” she said. “Much more quiet. But we had a very tough time this year, because of all the pressure. I couldn’t study very well. But I’m studying more now.”
“We’ve lost our brother,” she added. “We don’t want to lose our education, our future.”
Leila said that there was another older brother in the family, a woodworker, who was now the sole source of their financial support. They were renting their new home, but they couldn’t afford to buy it. Apart from the 20,000 Tunisian dinars paid by the government to the family of every martyr of the revolution, they were not receiving any support. It was unclear whether they would be able to stay in Tunis.
“If we don’t receive more help,” Leila said, “we will have to move back to Sidi Bouzid, because we own our house there, whereas here we have to pay rent.”
But moving back to Sidi Bouzid would pose problems. Rumors had been circulating in Sidi Bouzid that the family’s fame had somehow made it rich, and those rumors had prompted a local backlash. Mohamed’s portrait no longer marked the place where he set himself on fire, and the flagpole at his gravesite had been removed.
“I hope we don’t have to go back,” Leila told me. “We won’t be happy if we do.”
“So you are back to where you were before?” I said. “But without your brother, and less welcome in your hometown.”
“Yes,” Leila said. “We are back to where we were before. Only now with much more pain.”
I asked about her future. She had just passed into her third year at the college. She was hoping to finish her studies in Canada, and wanted to become a textile engineer. Her dream, she said, is to see more of the world, and then return to Tunisia to start her own textile business. Ultimately, she said, she wants to design her own fashions.
“My hobby is art,” she explained. “I’m a painter. I’m interested in fashion, design, in style.”
Leila claimed not to be politically-minded – “I have no knowledge of politics, ” she said – but when I asked if there was anything she wanted to tell people in the West, her answer eloquently expressed the hope—but also the uncertainty—of the revolution.
“I would like to ask the West to support the democratic transition in Tunisia,” she said. “To remove the RCD party from the government, and to help us take the former regime’s criminals to court. We would also like to ask them to invest in Tunisia, especially in the cities on the front line of the revolution—Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid, Tala, Sfax.”
“That’s it,” she said.
I thanked Leila Bouazizi in my tourist’s French. She answered with a graceful gesture, bowing slightly and putting her open hand on her heart. I passed her my notebook and she wrote down her e-mail address. Then it was time to go.
Six months after Ben Ali had fled the country, the revolution was still a promise that had yet to be fulfilled.
We drove back to Tunis, by the still waterfront and the ruins of Carthage, through the fancy neighborhoods with their walled-in mansions, past the half-built commercial office parks waiting for the new economy.
On my way back to the U.S. I had one night in Paris. La Place Mohamed Bouazizi, the public square dedicated by the City of Paris to Mohamed Bouazizi’s memory, would have been easy enough to find. It’s a small square near the Cite Universitaire stop on the RER. It is close to Parc Montsouris, an expansive public park laid out in the style of an English Garden, with rolling hills, lush greenery, and a central placid lake. The park is known as one of the best places in Paris to take children and to enjoy a peaceful stroll.
But on my one night in Paris I didn’t search out the public square named for the immortal hero of the Arab Spring, and so I can only report the experience of being there from my virtual tour of the park on Google Earth, and from the press report and photo in Le Monde about the dedication ceremony.
Still, I will go out on a small limb and say La Place Bouazizi is a small, leafy square, a quiet place you might come across going to or coming from the larger park across the way. It has a blue Parisian historical marker imprinted with Mohamed Bouazizi’s name. The report in Le Monde said La Place Bouazizi is only “nearby” the park, not in it, which means that Parc Montsouris, in all its serenity and grandeur—the beauty of its scenery, the calming sight of people roaming freely through its open spaces—most likely does not physically encompass the square dedicated in Mohamed Bouazizi’s name.
But it must be possible, I imagine, to see it from there.