Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011

Mohamed Bouazizi's Unexpected Sequel: A Tunisian Soap Opera

Mohamed Bouazizi's mother and siblings don't live in their hometown of Sidi Bouzid anymore. Their exceedingly humble, mottled-white home has been empty for months, abandoned behind a padlocked, pale gray metal door. Instant fame, it seems, has taken its toll on the family.

A year ago, the Bouazizis and their hardscrabble, dead-end town in central Tunisia were completely unknown. Mohamed, 26, a produce vendor who eked out a meager living selling his wares from a cart he pushed around all day along uneven, dusty streets, could have been anyone in any town in any country in the Middle East. That, in the end, was perhaps why he became such a powerful symbol.

The world now knows what happened to the scrawny young man on Dec. 17, 2010. How Bouazizi (whose real first name was Tarek) became enraged by his public humiliation at the hands of a policewoman who had harassed and threatened his livelihood one too many times. He tried to complain to local officials at the governorate, but they ignored him and refused him entry. Incensed, Bouazizi stood outside the sand-, peach- and cream-colored edifice on the main road, in the middle of traffic, and set himself, Tunisia and the rest of the Middle East on fire. Bouazizi lingered in the hospital until Jan. 4. Just 10 days after he died, Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali's 23-year rule of Tunisia was over.

Bouazizi's act of desperation and defiance ricocheted across a region whose long-disenfranchised people were hungry for basic dignities and fed up with the calcified, corrupt and dictatorial regimes that lorded over them. His family and hometown were instantly thrust into the national, regional and eventually global spotlight.

But in the months since the crush of foreign and local media crews, dignitaries and well-wishers has subsided, a quiet backlash has developed against the Bouazizis in some parts of their impoverished town. "As the days went on, the talk increased, and the attempt to smear us started," says Bouazizi's mother Mannoubia, a field hand who was picking olives on the fateful morning of her son's self-immolation almost a year ago. "They started saying we have a lot of money now, that all the journalists paid us. They would knock on our gate, ask us for money, or call my children on their phones."

The family moved into the bottom floor of a two-story home in La Marsa, a picturesque coastal town and popular vacation spot near the capital, Tunis. But the Bouazizis don't live in the swanky part, with its pristine white double-story homes and their azure shutters, wide clean streets and manicured lawns. Their rented abode, while clearly a step up from the well-kept four-room home in Sidi Bouzid, is in a narrow alleyway across from a dusty soccer field whose fringes serve as a garbage landfill. "They say we live in a castle," Mannoubia says, gesturing around the small room she receives guests in.

Back in Sidi Bouzid, the black graffiti once spray-painted across a concrete wall at the end of the Bouazizis' narrow street, proudly proclaiming Mohamed as "the son of Hay al-Noor [his neighborhood] in Sidi Bouzid, this is the location of the revolution," has been crudely covered over. So has other graffiti across town, although handwritten cloth banners have recently appeared to mark Dec. 17, the date he set himself on fire. A giant canvas poster of Bouazizi that used to hang from the town's central monument, a copper-colored pillar dedicated to Sidi Bouzid's agricultural roots, has been removed.

"Some people were digusted because they felt Bouazizi's mother got money in exchange for her son's life," says Bushra Amrawi, 24, an accountant, who was sitting on the monument's circular steps with her mother Latifa, 48. "The people here are very poor," says Latifa, by way of explanation. "Maybe that's why."

Farther down the street, Ouled Najette, 42, walked toward a government building to apply for a job. "They gave [the Bouazizis] a house, land — they were very poor, you know. We are proud of Mohamed, but there was a lot of talk about his mother. A lot, so she probably wanted to get away from it all," explaining the family's absence. "People talk, but look," she says, gesturing to faded red graffiti near the post office where protesters converged in late December and early January. "We call this Mohamed Bouazizi Square."

There are other, newer scrawlings in the vicinity, about a young man called Hussein Naji. "O martyr, we won't forget you, Hussein," it says on the side of the white post office building. "Hussein Naji, the first martyr of the revolution," is scrawled in blue outside the governorate, just down the road.

Naji was a fresh-faced 24-year-old who died on Dec. 22, 2010. Local officials said he was electrocuted after climbing a pole and coming into contact with high-voltage wires during one of the many protests in the heady days after Bouazizi's self-immolation. Some townsfolk say the youth meant to electrocute himself and emulate Bouazizi's act of self-sacrifice. But his mother, who gave her name as Umm al-Khair, and his older brother Faisal, 30, a dried-fruits salesmen, insist Naji survived the electrocution and fall and was later killed in police custody. "My brother was the first martyr," says Faisal, sitting in the family living room his late brother hand-painted with thousands of tiny palm fronds that give the cream walls the appearance of wallpaper. "Mohamed Bouazizi was the first spark, but not the first martyr."

The Naji family, like those of many of Tunisia's revolutionary martyrs, received 20,000 dinars ($13,600) in compensation. Umm al-Khair spent the money on a partly constructed new red brick house adjacent to her modest home, which she also made renovations to. But she hasn't been subjected to the kind of vitriol Bouazizi's mother experienced. "Why did they do that to Mannoubia, drive her out?" she says. "So what if she took money? She lost her son — she is entitled to the world. I don't want the recognition, the fame. I just want justice for my son. He was killed."

The Bouazizi matriarch's wider clan of some 15 brothers and sisters remain in their hometown and according to the eldest member, Sayda, have not been touched by neighborhood gossip. "It's not all of Sidi Bouzid, you see," says Sayda, who bears a striking resemblance to her sister Mannoubia. "It's because of a misunderstanding. God give them sense. People started talking that [Mannoubia] doesn't want to live among us, that she wants to live in Tunis. They just wore her out."

Mannoubia blames one particular neighbor, Haniya Dawi, for much of the gossip. The two women had frosty ties even before Mohamed's death. Their dislike appears to stem from the neighbor's alleged 10-meter encroachment on the Bouazizi property. It descended into physical violence in early November, on the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday. The Bouazizis had returned to their old home to spend the day and, as is customary, visit the graves of relatives, principally Mohamed. "Yes, she came here on Eid, and we had a fight. I hit her and she hit me. I opened up her head," says Dawi, a woman with piercing blue eyes and brown tartar on her teeth, as she stands at the gate of her property. She is proud of the stitches Bouazizi's mother had to get in her scalp. "We don't like each other. Mohamed's not a martyr, and she's not the mother of a martyr. He burned himself and used to drink. She has 4 billion dinars, you know, from Europe, America and [United Nations Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon."

In La Marsa, Mannoubia Bouazizi carefully unwinds her hijab to reveal the black thread stitched into her scalp, the result of the Eid altercation with Dawi. "We are comfortable here," she says. "I cried so much [in Sidi Bouzid]. I was greatly affected by the words of many people, especially when they started spreading rumors about us, about receiving money," she says. "But I was also touched by people who showed me great kindness, much love, respect in Sidi Bouzid and around the world. This is temporary. I won't leave my son's house," she says. "I will continue to visit him there, see his things, the room where he slept."