Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011

The Martyr's Mother: An Interview with Mannoubia Bouazizi

TIME's Rania Abouzeid spoke to Mannoubia Bouazizi, the mother of Mohammad Bouazizi, at her home in La Marsa, a section of Tunis. Here are excerpts from the interview.

TIME: After your son's act and the start of the protests, where were you during that period?
Mannoubia Bouazizi:
I work in the fields. It was the olive-picking season. On that day, I got a telephone call from a relative who asked me where I was. I told him I was picking olives. He told me Mohammad isn't well, he's a little sick. Nobody told me that he burned himself or what kind of condition he was in. I told him when I left Mohammad was asleep at home. What do you mean Mohammad is a little sick? No, he's not. I called my brother and told him to come and get me because Mohammad was a little sick.
I went straight to the hospital. All his friends were already there. I was shocked, I couldn't understand why they were all there. I started screaming, "Mohammad, Mohammad,is he dead? Did he die?" They told me no, no, Mohammad is alright. He's O.K. They took him to the hospital in Sfax.

How soon after this did the protests start?
Exactly two days later, on the Friday in a big way. But when Mohammad's cart was still in front of the governorate and the fire was still burning Mohammad's body, some young men gathered around the governorate and started yelling at officials. At that very moment, at the same time that it had. They and his uncle, the man who raised him [her current husband] took Mohammad to the hospital, and others continued to throw stones at the governorate and yell and shout in front of it. Some of them told me they were saying, "Mohammad was oppressed, he was upset and downtrodden, and you are people who did not help him." "Where is the woman who hit him?" "You just want to humiliate us. Why didn't you open your door to him?"

Where were you when Sidi Bouzid was protesting?
During that whole period I was in the hospital, first in Sfax and then in Ben Arous. I didn't see any of it. His whole family was in Ben Arous. The only one of us who was in Sidi Bouzid was Basma [his 16-year-old sister]. For all that time, I was in the hospital. From when the revolution started and the people started taking to the streets and rioting, I and all of my family except Basma weren't present to see it. Basma would tell us what was happening in our town, that people were being beaten by the police and were attacking them back. We were kept informed by constant telephone calls.
In Ben Arous, I felt like I was locked into the hospital room, like the door was closed to me. They didn't want us to leave, even in the hospital in Sfax. They closed the door to us and wouldn't let us leave. When Ben Ali came to visit Mohammad, I told him I want to know what has happened to that woman, that woman that burned my son and burned my heart. I told him I am living but I am dead ... I told him, "Mr. President he was a street vendor, he'd move around and sell his produce. Why should she hit him with her gloves and humiliate him in the square." I told him my son was humiliated and beaten. He said, "We must send your son to France for treatment." He never did.

What is the message of Mohammad Bouazizi? What do you think the Arab people learned from Mohammad Bouazizi?
For 23 years, people lived with corruption, oppression, humiliation, with having to pay bribes. The message was that any person who has his livelihood threatened, who suffers because of officials, who is harassed by them, who is kept under their boot, who sees these officials who control the country, who do as they please, who do not let people like us live — Mohammad suffered a lot, he worked hard, but when he set fire to himself it wasn't about his scales being confiscated. It was about his dignity. Dignity before bread. Mohammad's first concern was his dignity. Dignity before bread.

Did you hear any particularly memorable words, anything you heard that has stuck with you, that was memorable?
With regard to words, it was the first time that people all felt affected. They all wanted to speak, to participate, to respond to what happened to Mohammad. He became like a a light. He was the last drop that overfilled the cup. It was a situation that nobody could imagine, nobody could fathom. The soul is precious. For a person to set themselves on fire, all because of oppression and humiliation.

In this past year you have met many people, from international figures like U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to regular people from other towns in Tunisia and around the region. Did anybody tell you something that stuck with you more than anything else?
Their words, all their words, touched me. I was in mourning. He was a young man who hoped for good things, who asked for his mother's blessing, who wanted to work and to help his family, but as the days went on, the talk increased, the attempt to smear us started, talk that Ban Ki-moon gave us money, that I ask journalists for 5 million [dinars] an interview. That's not true. I have never been paid for an interview or by Ban Ki-moon or by the government of America or France or anyone else. Even the Tunisian government didn't honor us or give us anything more than the 20 million for every martyr.
I was surprised by many things, some good and others bad. Many people were very patient with him. They helped me to get through this. They would tell me that Mohammad, may God rest his soul, died a martyr. They showed me affection, kindness. I was treated well by them. I went to New York, to Doha, to Paris. I traveled to a lot of countries that honored me and my son, that showed great kindness, much love, respect, as well as in Sidi Bouzid and in Tunis. But there are other people, some say it is because of jealousy and ill-will, who are smearing us. A lot of people have told me not to listen to these others. They try to cheer me up, to lessen my sadness. But some people are gossips, jealous, mean.
The ugliest thing I have experienced since Mohammad's death is when I returned to my home recently, the home of the deceased, the home that he lived in for 27 years and left, that Hania Dawi [her neighbor] made us so uncomfortable that we couldn't stay there. We left early on Wednesday to return to Tunis. My daughter had stepped outside to take out some rubbish. She hit her, pulled her hair. My daughter screamed, "Mama, Mama, help me." I swear to God I didn't even realize my daughter wasn't in the house. I went outside. That's when the neighbor grabbed a large rock and hit me on the head. My head started to bleed. She kept hitting me.

What did you do with Mohammad's things? Is there an item you value more than others?
That night, the night that woman did that to us, on that night, the deceased's sisters and I had spread out his clothes, and sprayed them with his cologne to smell him again. Basma and Samia [two of her daughters] took out his clothes from the cupboard and sprayed them. Leila [his other sister] had stepped out to throw the rubbish and that's when she started screaming out to me to come and help her. [His mother goes into the other room and comes back with a short-sleeved white shirt that says "Flyboys" on it and a half-empty bottle of cologne. She smells his shirt and starts to cry.] He used to love this smell.

Could you have imagined that your son's actions would have the effect they did? That he has become a symbol, not just in Tunisia but around the world?
From when he fled from his oppressor, I knew he was going to emerge as a symbol, because nobody accepted that our oppressor, that dog, would flee this country. We thought only death would take him from us.

Did anything frighten you? How do you feel about the fact that your family name and life has become so public?
I am happy, I am proud, I was not frightened of anything. Even when Ben Ali was still here and the young people were rioting [in Sidi Bouzid] in front of the governorate, I feared no one. I have my honor, my dignity. I felt like I was dead even while I was alive. I'd hear about the people throwing stones at police, about the young, the old, women, men who were all participating, who all converged on the governorate and protested. I feared no one. I am proud of my son. He is a symbol, an important symbol. It is a great honor. During Ben Ali's time I was not afraid, so why should I be afterward? It has been a time full of pride, of symbolism.

How have you changed as a person during this period?
Praise be to God, I continuously pray for my son's soul. I have a martyr. I always ask mercy for his soul and the souls of all the martyrs. The main thing that changed was my country. Tunisia is now free. The people can now speak, defend themselves, complain. That is what I wanted, and I am very happy it has happened.

Were you surprised by yourself? Did you know that you had it in you to meet Ban Ki-moon, for example, and all these people? To become such a public figure?
Thanks to God, I have found myself in the middle of a huge event, a happy event, a proud event. I am very proud that the people are now free. This was a dream we dared not dream. And it has all come from God. Praise be to God. Perhaps he chose me to be the mother of a martyr. We are good people, simple people. We pray, we are religious. I have suffered a lot, I sacrificed a lot. I was very poor, a very simple person, a hard worker. It was hard. I worked hard, made sacrifices for my family. I didn't care how tired I was. Everything that comes from God is great. Praise be to him. He has made us proud of ourselves.

I saw a photo of you voting in the elections. Where did you vote? How was the experience? Did people recognize you? Did you go alone or did your children accompany you?
Actually, we were split. Some voted in a particular place, others elsewhere. My husband Ammar, Leila and I went to a local school here in La Marsa. Samia voted somewhere else.

How long did you wait in line to vote? What were you thinking?
I waited in line for four hours. There were many journalists around me. I was very happy, especially to see that everyone else was happy. People were ululating, whistling, clapping. I didn't spend all four hours in line. My daughter held my place, I sat in the shade on a verandah, watching all the people vote. Many people recognized me, welcomed me, said they were pleased to see me voting. All the people were saying, "It's Bouazizi's mother! It's Bouazizi's mother!" "May God rest Bouazizi's soul!" The people were happy, so happy! There were so many people, young, old. Many offered their place in line to me; they told me to move forward rather than wait. I told them, I am just one of the people. I will wait like everyone else. I waited until my turn came. I voted. It was great. People would come up to me and say, "We are all Bouazizi." "We are all Mohammad" "You are our mother too"
I honestly hope that other countries will be liberated the way that Tunisia is now free, all the other Arab countries. I hope that leaders will emerge who are worthy of their people, of their countries. I pray that God plants the seeds of mercy in the hearts of officials. I hope God will make other Arab people happy the way that Tunisians, Libyans and Egyptians are now happy. May God have mercy on all the martyrs.

How do you deal with the loss of your son?
I cried a lot. I cried so much. I beat myself until I was bruised. Basma often sees him in her dreams. I don't. I think it's because she has made peace with his actions. I cried so much, I was greatly affected by the words of many people, especially when they started spreading rumors about us, about receiving money. Basma saw Mohammad in her dreams. He asked her why I was crying. He is with us. He still lives with us.