Saturday, January 15, 2011

Winter Sun

After a particularly unsettling week, I awoke to sunshine, birds chirping, and an unusually quiet Tunis. Leaned out of Marley's balcony with wet hair and a cigarette in hand. I could see the moon, faint in the distance. Is it over, I wondered.

How can I begin to explain the past few days... Tragedy, hope, fear, suspense...

On Tuesday night, while I was in the middle of teaching a class, our school was suddenly evacuated. Sam came home with me. Neither of us were sure what was going on. No one was, really. There were rumors of riots in Ettadem and Bardo. Shops were closing, so we bought some last-minute food and restlessly bustled around my house. We were glued to Facebook, looking for updates from Tunisian friends. There were rumors of gunshots and violence. Sam and I watched as military vehicles drove down my street toward the affected neighborhoods. I dressed Sam in the only pajamas I had - a giant white t shirt and zebra print harem pants. We laughed; he looked like a Hawaiian yogi guru. What will tomorrow bring, we wondered.

I couldn't sleep, and I rolled out of bed early in the morning. I worked on lesson plans, preparing to go to work. When I arrived at work, I was told to go home. There weren't any taxis in sight, so I took a ride from a stranger and headed to my friend David's house. David and I walked to my place, grabbed a mattress and a pillow, and I packed a bag. A group of us were holed up in his place, on lockdown due to an 8 pm curfew. The streets were dead. My friends in other neighborhoods, like La Marsa and Carthage, were skyping me, alarmed by gunshots and the sounds of people crying and screaming. No one understood what was happening. I called Hichem, who lives in La Marsa. He was panicked; police were kicking his door, yelling at him, harassing his neighbors... Again, I didn't sleep that night. I got in bed and burst into tears. I wasn't afraid, but I was very worried. And I didn't know what to expect.

In the morning I woke to a call from my boss, telling me that my classes were again canceled. I decided to get food, while I still could, as a general strike the next had been announced. It was sunny and warm. I walked to the Monoprix to find it closed. All of the shops were boarded up along the way, and even the little kiosks by my place were closed. That afternoon I went to one of the few open cafés in Nasr. As we sat and waited for our food, I received a text from David, "Stephen's been shot". While walking home from work, Stephen and Holly (two fellow teachers), walked into some tear gas thrown by the police, and when they started to run, the police opened fire. Stephen was shot in the leg. I was in shock. There is was. Innocent people, not protesters or rioters, were being shot for no reason. Sofiene and I ate hurriedly so we could get home.

President Ben Ali gave a speech that night, at 8 pm, promising democracy, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. The Tunisian people were not satisfied. They wanted him out. He staged a celebration, paying people to drive their cars around the city, with Tunisian flags attached, honking and shouting with excitement. The people were not duped. A large, peaceful protest was organized on Habib Bourguiba, for the next day, Friday.

On Friday morning I packed my bags to go to another friend Marley's house. Sofiene picked me up, and we grabbed a coffe before heading to Cité Marhajene. As we pulled up, we saw rioters gathering near her place. I received a text telling me that her building was being attacked. I grabbed my bags and ran upstairs. People were throwing rocks at the building, trying to destroy pictures of Ben Ali that hung along the side of the building.

Once things calmed down, Marley and I decided to walk to the protest on Habib Bourguiba. Sam was there, with Tunisian friends, and he quickly popped into his flat near the avenue. I received a panicked call from Adriane (who was at David's house). She watched in fear as hundreds of people ran down a hill toward their flat, yelling.
Gangs were breaking into the shops in the plaza below them. They were trying to enter apartment buildings, banging on doors. The police did nothing. I had on words for her. Stephen was with them, his leg propped on a couch. I told them to stay still, in one room, and to wait for the military.

Marley and I kept walking toward the protest. We had almost arrived when Sam called me, telling me to run. "I hear gunshots, there are gunshots. I see tear gas. They're throwing tear gas. Turn around. Go." His voice from firm, but calm. I saw smoke billowing from the clock tower. It had been lit on fire. I tried calling Sofiene. He had gone to the protest with friends. My calls kept getting disconnected. Marley and I were heading back to her place. I felt my legs shaking a little, wondering if the ones I loved were okay. So many friends were at the protest. Sofiene finally called. They shot at he and his friends. They were tear gased, trapped in the crowd, and trying to get home. Strangers picked Marley and I up and dropped us at home.

All over the city there were gunshots and buildings set afire. Ben Ali fled the country. No one knew where he was going. A state of emergency was called. An interim government was established, with the Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi acting as president. Our new curfew was 5 pm, the military was now in control, and it was illegal to be out in public with more than 3 people. I felt restless. I wanted to see Sam, wanted to see Sofiene, wanted to go outside, wanted a normal day, wanted to stop seeing images and videos of murder and suffering. But I was simultaneously hopeful. The Tunisian people had succeeded in carrying out a revolution and ousting Ben Ali.

It wasn't over yet, though. The night was full of unrest. Prisons were burned, leaving prisoners either dead or freed. Gangs and police took to the streets, burning buildings, looting homes and local businesses. Two major commercial centers in Tunis, Géant and Carrefour, were looted then set ablaze. Helicopters flew overhead. Friends in other neighborhoods, and even other Tunisian cities, called me relaying stories of fires and looters. Fortunately Marley's neighborhood was calm. I was afraid, though. The airports were closed, and some friends were talking about taking boats to Italy, trying to evacuate. Marley and I lay in bed, watching a movie, unable to talk about revolution anymore. Sometimes you have to distract yourself from the anxiety of it all.

And today. Today as I said, I woke to warm winter sun and a feeling of peace. I can't describe it. Maybe it feels like holding a newborn baby right after labor. Chaos and pain and fear, then beauty and lightness. I don't know what will happen next, but it seems as though the Tunisian people are going to work toward democracy. Foued Mbazza, the speaker of the Tunisian parliament was named Tunisia's 3rd president in just 24 hours.

Helicopters fly over head and militia stand on street corners. It's still prohibited to be in public in groups larger than 3. Marley and I are going out to search for food. And inshallah, the country will rebuild itself. Inshallah there will be peace and democracy and comfort to those who have lost family members. The Tunisian people successfully carried out a revolution. It is the first Arab country to do so. Ben Ali is gone.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm listening... Get to safety, Jess1 I'm going to call the American Embassy today - please give me a location on where you are through images.

- LC from ATX