The mother of Mohammed Bouazizi was detained last Friday. Mohammed Bouazizi died setting off the Tunisian Revolution. I met his cousins. Here are a few impressions of the birthplace of the Arab Spring …
Sidi Bouzid is kind of at the very heart of Tunisia. It is as untypical and average as a town can be at once: nothing of the coast-line tourism and none of the capital's multiculti, but all of the country's economic problems and extreme unemployment especially among the younger generation. The Lonely Planet from three years ago tells you that foreigners will rarely make it here, and that it may be good that way. When I jump into my louage in Tunis - a collective cab to go there - I feel both nervous, curious, excited, and of course a little guilty: I am now officially what people here call a little bit sarcastically a "revolution tourist." Two years ago, I never would have headed here, now the choice seems inevitable to me. I will be surprised, however, to find that not too many other people seem to think that way. Even "revolution tourism" is low these days.
I am the only women in the car. The men I'm with are young, and seem like the kind that have seen their share of hardship - though that could also be my imagination, prepping myself for a place that too many people warned me from. Hence, even though I have never found myself in a dangerous situation in Tunisia, I am a little wary this time. The trip takes four hours or so, and the street there degenerates from new wide highway roads to those that can fit one car at a time and are a lot more bumpy. (Later, an architect will explain to me that Sidi Bouzid is essentially cut off of Tunisia's highway system and that's how he explains the poverty and lack of tourism.) We arrive at dawn, and the louage driver is shocked when he hears that I do not have family that I am visiting. Concerned, he drives me all the way to the cheaper of the two hotels here. "Pay attention and don't talk to everyone!" he says before he sends me off, and I also learn that no foreigner has as of yet come to this town on his louage.
The hotel "lässt zu wünschen übrig," we would say in German. It leaves a lot to wish for. It's clean but basic, yet the high price of 30 dinar ($20) let's you know that guests that make it here subsidize for empty nights. Apparently though, business has been excellent since the revolution, two hotel keepers say to me in Arabic and French. There are Americans, French, Italians, Germans. If they are really here right now, however, they have found a place to hide - the only guests I interact with are Algerian or hotel employees.
Overall, Bouzid feels different, no doubt. It's dark already, so I'm cautious when I leave the hotel, but I notice right away that people are less chatty on the street. Much less of the constant "bonjour! asslema! where are you from?" that I know from Tunis. Instead, I get a few more skeptical hellos and "what exactly do you want here?" looks. The starker is the contrast when I run into a little group of the very first women I see on the street here. Two of them wear Angeline Jolie T-Shirts and have blonde-died hair, the other two wear headscarfs, but are no less amused by talking to me. Minutes later I am in a car, surrounded by loud chattering and laughter and a brother who talks about getting married to me as soon as he divorced his 60-something year old wife who is gifting him a British visa. And just like that, my night ends with a dance party in their home to celebrate one sister's successful completion of her high school finals. Of course, I have to eat couscous and drink coca cola, and when the music is turned off to let the little children sleep, of course we have to drive to the "corniche" to eat ice cream in the late night heat.
My next day turns out a little different, but that shall be another blog post. Preliminary, my Sidi Bouzid conclusion:
It's shocking but it's true: everybody in the city will tell you nothing changed here. Unemployment, poverty and general despair are still the day-to-day reality. The biggest changes are a massive Bouazizi poster in the middle of the city, and - it seems - a decrease in the city's alcohol consumption because many of the hopeless youth have turned to Salafism as a new alternative and path that promises a better future. Even more depressing is that Sidi Bouzid has been the only place so far where I have heard people tell me that Tunisia with Ben Ali was better than Tunisia today, and that they want the dictator back in power. At least there was certainty then, they say, and more security. On a brighter note: I did meet someone, who told me about plans to create a sort of "Revolution Circuit" to bring tourists to important places of the Arab Spring. But how long it will take to get that done? Years! He says. Mostly because it is excepted to be hard to get the government here to agree.
And Mohammed Bouazizi's mother? Got in an argument with a local judge when demanding the governmental compensation for Revolution martyrs. You can read more here. I am not sure about the details, but I do know that many in Bouzid are not too happy about her anyways. "People think the family was selfish," explained one of Bouazizi's cousins. "They get money after Mohammed died, and then they quickly moved to Marsa (a fancy Tunis suburb). People think they should have stayed here." Then he takes me to their former home. A tiny courtyard with a door that seems to lead to a house with no more than a single room, maybe two. I understand now.