Why The Birthplace Of The Tunisian Revolution Has Turned Against The Family Of The Martyr Who Started It All

Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest last December, launching the Arab Spring from the small Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid. Now his family has moved away, facing the scorn of locals who say they’re cashing in at the city's expense.

A Jan. 18 rally in Sidi Bouzid
Isabelle Mandraud

SIDI BOUZID - The small, traditional house with its water spigot in the yard is sealed shut. Its occupants have left and locked the door, moving far away – 265 kilometers north – to the capital of Tunis. At the end of the street, the graffiti that was drawn in memory of the "martyr" has been painted over in gray, with indignation. "We're angry because they have made themselves rich and abandoned us," a neighbor explains. "It's as if the revolution has gone to Tunis."

In Sidi Bouzid, nothing is left for the Bouazizi family, who were victims twice over, now suffering from a fame that was as overwhelming as it was sudden. This is where it all started on Dec. 17, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of the governor's office situated at the heart of this poor, drought-stricken agricultural city. A street vendor of fruits and vegetables, the 26-year-old had one too many altercations with municipal officials who wanted to confiscate his cart.

His desperate (ultimately suicidal) act lead to an angry local protest, and then another. The popular uprising moved to the neighboring cities and towns before finally spreading rapidly throughout the whole country. Less than a month later, on Jan. 14, the government of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fell after 23 years of dictatorship. Mohamed Bouazizi became the icon of the Tunisian revolution.

After him, dozens of youth attempted to set themselves ablaze, some successfully, in Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt. His portrait could be found everywhere. On posters, calendars, stamps, and books. In nearby Ben Arous, the burn victims hospital where he died on Jan. 4 was renamed Mohamed Bouazizi Hospital. A street in Paris will eventually be named after him as well.

In the center of Sidi Bouzid, the symbolic monument of the old regime, a "7" marking the date (Nov. 7, 1987) that Ben Ali came to power, is hidden by a huge picture of a smiling Mohamed Bouazizi, as well as two smaller ones belonging to other "martyrs."

Journalists from all over the world visited the family. "Caravans of thanks' converged on Sidi Bouzid. Even Tunisian politicians made the pilgrimage to this small town. There were also interviews with key figures. The oldest dates back to Dec. 28, 2010, when, after visiting the bedside of Mohamed Bouazizi at the hospital, the former president Ben Ali met with Manoubia, his mother.

Mohamed's sister, Leila Bouazizi, 24, was at the meeting with the president. "It didn't even last ten minutes," she recalls. "He said, ‘The doctors are taking care of him, everything is all right, he will recover." But we could tell by his facial expressions that he wasn't a kind person." Two weeks later, Bouazizi was dead. The most recent visit took place on March 23 when Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, passing through Tunis, wanted to meet and speak with the family.

But soon after, rumors started to spread that the family had somehow exploited their plight for gain. "They became rich with the donations from all over the world," accuses a Sidi Bouazizi resident, sitting on a palm tree of the main square. "They sold the cart for 16,000 dinars $11,500," the neighbor claims to know.

Compassion has been replaced with resentment. "The government took the family and settled them in La Marsa a suburb of Tunis to keep the journalists from coming here. They are simple people, and they have been manipulated," says Taoufik Sniha, member of the Revolution Counsel of Sidi Bouzid that was created on March 11, at the same time that the family left the town.

The victim's older brother, Salem, 27, works as a carpenter in Tunisia's second largest city Sfax. The mother, Manoubia, Leila and her sisters, Semia, 19, Basma, 16, and the two younger brothers, Karim, 14, and Zyed, 8, live at the edge of a working-class neighborhood of La Marsa. "Until today, the government has given us nothing except 20,000 dinars $14,500, just like the rest of the families of martyrs," Leila says.

But Sidi Bouzid jealously guards its revolution, as evidenced by the banners and flyers on the walls that accuse Tunis of seizing the status as the uprising's true home. "The revolution of freedom and dignity is December 17, not January 14."

The departure of the Bouazizis was seen as a desertion. "We left because of the pressure, so that things would calm down and because mother was very tired," protests Leila. "There were rumors that journalists paid us 5,000 dinars $3,600, and then when we saw Ban Ki-moon, people said that he gave us money, but it's not true."

And the famous vegetable cart? It was "hidden" by the older brother, Leila says, "because everyone wanted to buy it," citing rumors that Gulf countries offered 160,000 dinars $116,100 to acquire it. "Maybe they spoke with Salem, I don't know…" Just above a whisper, she adds with difficulty, "We were not expecting all this, it's a catastrophe."

About 20 kilometers 12.5 miles from Sidi Bouzid, in a cemetery situated in the home village of the family, the pole planted in front of the grave has disappeared. But the Tunisian flag laid on the grave catches your eye at first glance, a solitary splash of red in the dusty green fields covered with cacti.

Read the original article in French.

Photo - magharebia

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Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.
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