Amine Ben Aissa, born in 1980, better known by the pen name Amine Al Ghozzi, is a Tunisian-French writer who writes in both standard Arabic and Tunisian Arabic dialect. He graduated from the Faculty of Human and Social Sciences of Tunis and was an associate professor of history and geography at various middle and high schools in Tunisia. He is now enrolled in a master’s degree programme at the Sorbonne in France. Al Ghozzi’s first novel, ظل شيطان خلف صورتي (Devil’s Shadow Behind my Picture), was published in 2013. The book tackled social and political issues in Tunisia, covering subjects including illegal immigration, emotional and sexual relationships, harassment and rape, the relationship between citizens and the police, journalistic practices and censorship. Al Ghozzi has also written and directed two short films, which were produced by the Tunisian Federation of Amateur Filmmakers, The Blackboard in 2004 and Crossed Lives in 2005. In addition, he has written several poems in Arabic and in Tunisian dialects, including the lyrics of the famous song Kelmti Horra (My word is free). He currently lives with his wife, his daughter and his son in Orléans, in the region of Centre-Val de Loire in France.
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A MILITARY COUP WITHOUT MILITARY MEN
Mohamed Ghannouchi clasped a tiny pile of papers with shaking hands, like someone catching a fish for the first time. He talked to the camera with wide-open eyes and in a voice as tremulous and faint as a moribund campfire.
On his left, like an old cupboard, stood the Speaker of the House of Representatives (next President of the Republic), Foued Mebazzaa. On his right, slightly inclined, was the Chairman of the Council of Advisors (former Interior Minister), Abdallah Kallel.
They faced the camera in a line, wearing stylish suits, neckties and prescriptive glasses, their eyes flitting relentlessly all over the presidential office, to express in icy words their constitutional testimonies of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s abdication of power.
At a time when all international news agencies were reporting the general’s abdication, and after two hours or so of his withdrawal from power, the national TV channel was still broadcasting the event with the same boredom with which it had celebrated the anniversary of his coup d’état:
Tara Tara (music).
Pictures of mogra and jasmine blossoms, a frozen smile of a swarthy man with a thick black moustache, wearing on his head a chechia and traditional apparel. Tara Tara (music). You also see a bird’s eye view of Tunisian hotels, houses. A herd of frightened gazelles running across the Sahara. A jazz track by Fawzi Chekili. A traditional birdcage. A snapshot of Sidi Bou Said marina. Tatatataa (song) “We are generosity/We are magnanimity” sung by Slah Mesbah, then there was the speech of the new President (who remained in office for a few hours only).
At the background was the emblem of the Republic with its three symbols:
The camera zoomed in on Mohamed Ghannouchi when he announced he was taking over the presidency. Then the camera retreated when the man pledged to respect the constitution and implement the wished-for reforms—and only Allah grants success.
The presenter, with a faint smile on his face, commented with drastic brevity that the decision was historic and fulfilled the wishes of Tunisian people.
On the national TV channel the thing looked like a military coup without officers. Those non-military men were gesturing in such a way as to confirm their unwillingness to accept this mission:
- Mr. Mebazzaa’s hands tied in front of his paunch, like someone who has just embarked on prayer.
- Kallel’s arms wrapped behind his back, like someone still adamant about offering candies to a girlfriend who hasn’t shown up.
- Ghannouchi’s right hand time and again sneaked to the microphone stick, like someone dreading impending dizziness.
After 8 p.m. on January 14th, 2011, Tunisia appeared to be officially in the grip of an improvised coup.
In a scene in which the country, the whole country, was forced to choose between prestigiousness offering things with trembling hands and foolishness expressing itself in delinquency and freedom, the masses chose to walk down the road of freedom with foolish fervour.
BEFORE DEL BOSQUE’S LAUGHTER
The voices blasted with cheers of Allah Akbar in Hmaida’s café after the news had been confirmed. The arms shot up in the air.
Mr. Youssef kowtowed amid chairs and cigarette butts like a football player who had scored in the last minute. When he sprang up he overturned a table with his back. He barked at the regulars who were still hanging about:
- Hurrah! Long live Tunisia, Long live the people.
- Take care of yourself Mr. Youssef.
He walked towards them and kissed each one in turn and then trudged out of the café with his trousers barely fastened to his waist, his voice echoing faintly across the neighbourhood.
Some people followed him, chanting slogans as entangled as a yarn ball. Then, suddenly, they discovered amid their frenzy that the man was going home. He looked at them and gestured with his right hand that he would follow the news on foreign TV channels. There was also the internet.
- My daughter has been following the news since day one. The youth have won, guys, the youth have won.
His followers then halted a few steps away from the narrow lane leading to his house. They exchanged perplexed glances in the middle of a road as empty as a bamboo flute, then bifurcated into two groups of two people. They had two choices:
Either follow the revolution on TV, as Mr. Youssef did, or join the revolutionaries downtown. They were themselves a motley of haters and looters.
Hajj Hmaida, the café owner, quickly locked the door and admonished the lingering customers about the curfew, security, and the looters scattered all over the country.
He customarily sits in a corner in the café and lays his silver-headed hookah on his right and the glass of distilled mint next to the TV remote control on the stool on his left. He addresses his employees (his son manages the night shift and his son-in-law the morning one) with laconic words and then resumes sending dull bubbly sounds from his hookah.
Mr. Hmaida was like Del Bosque, the former manager of the Spanish football team, who, before that night, could track everything just by eye movement:
Who’s paid his drinks and who hasn’t, who’s lost a card game and who’s won, which football match can attract the biggest number of customers, who’s left for prayer, who’s come drunk from the bar, who talks about politics in the café, and who’s ordered a drink before the kick-off of the game and who hasn’t.
He had never put on news channels before that day. He was happy with the eight o’clock bulletin, and after that he would switch to a sports or music channel while the hookah spout hooked onto his lips and his eyes roamed with his head in calculations of expenses, profits and consumptions.
That evening he moved his chair. He drew closer to the TV. His head, sheathed in a brown hood, covered one-third of the screen during the speech.
When the chants flared up and Mr. Youssef walked out, followed by people who enraptured to his rapture, Del Bosque didn’t find the remote control because of intense emotions, so he lunged towards the TV set and with his index finger switched it off by hitting one of the buttons on its flank, thus killing the sound that was causing all the trouble.
In the café remained only those who were later exposed to gunshot when they mounted guard at the nearby crossroads:
Uncle Mohamed, Hamza, Abdelwahid al-Mokni, the manager of the adjacent cyberclub, and his friend Fawzi.
Hajj Hmaida slouched across the café aisles like a massive tortoise, threatening the lingering customers that he would denounce them to the police for they refused to go home in respect of the curfew.
- But there is no security anymore, Hajj Hmaida. It’s gone.
With his neck craning towards the café owner and his glasses reflecting the blue light of the neon bulbs dangling from the ceiling, Abdelwahid shouted:
- O Hajj, please put the telly on. The country is on fire, O Hajj.
Uncle Mohamed thumped the table with his fist, which sounded like the thud of a stone rolling off the wall of the old medina. He laughed and coughed, his facial wrinkles charting lines and dunes shifting in between his large mouth and sunken green eyes. He then screamed at the waiter, unheeding the manager’s threats:
- Hisham, bring us tea. We want to celebrate the event.
He ordered another drink for all customers, which brought the manager to silence.
He didn’t go back to his hookah. He moved around in slow steps, dimming the lights. After that he switched on the TV. He changed the channel. He put on the Qatari news channel Al Jazeera and covered half of the screen with his massive head.
With his mouth pursed, he was astonished at everything said about the flight of Ben Ali and all the fury that set the country ablaze. He managed to stifle an inner feeling of rapture the origin of which he couldn’t locate, so much so he didn’t hear the customers seated behind shouting at him to move slightly aside.
They inched their way towards him and clustered around the TV screen, each one casting in his own comments and interpretations. Only Uncle Mohamed’s voice caught the attention, his forefinger was pecking nervously at the image of Ben Ali on TV.
Hmaida pushed Uncle Mohamed away from the screen. When the old man was about to fall, he held him tight and then hoisted him up like a cotton sack as he kept laughing.
Everyone saw Bulky Hajj Haida Del Bosque laugh. His laughter was rough and raucous.
Nawfel waited for a speech in support of the chief commander of the armed forces. He shut the door after the last customer. They had left after they heard the news and the declaration of the state of extreme emergency.
He bought two packets of Cristal cigarettes in one go at Rahman’s, the roast nuts vendor next to him. He gulped down what remained of the coffee and asked Ali Dow to turn off the lights before taking a seat beside him. Which Ali did. He then bent over the keyboard and hammered the keys with nervous fingers, browsing pages in search of that thing, the military communiqué and the declaration of Statement Number One.
Nawfel truly believed that a real general would show up, wearing a green suit and a cap studded with glittery signs, a general with a cold heart but a warm voice, who would deliver his speech from somewhere, expressing his unfailing support of the revolution and his readiness to crush its enemies under the wheel of history which chose to progress in one leap.
The news—the rumours—the reactions were falling from all directions, like fireballs, stuffing more news, similar ones, like twin sisters, into the world of expression and sensation. Flanking Nawfel, Ali was watching the news flow on the computer screen. Two heads sprouting from one neck, shrouded in a veil of smoke billowing from smouldering cigarettes:
- Ben Ali’s plane is now heading towards Malta.
- Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s plane has headed to France.
- All Trabelsi family members have been arrested in Tunis Carthage Airport?
- Slim Chiboub sneaked onto the Libyan soil.
- A video entitled: What Made Ben Ali Flee From Tunisia. Thousands of people in front of the Ministry of Interior chanting in unison Dégage! Share. Share.
- Trabelsi and Ben Ali family members trying to escape from Tunisia by all possible means and the army is trying to foil their plans.
- A video: Tunisian policemen brutally beating up a protestor in the epic demonstration in front of the Interior Ministry HQ.
- A video: This evening in Nabeul, huge crowds stormed into supermarkets and police forces opened random fire.
- Al Jazeera Channel: Gunshots heard in the precincts of the Presidential Palace and news of clashes between security forces and the army.
- Hooded groups on rooftops and others still looting supermarkets and shops.
- In spite of the curfew, homes were vandalised and pillaged.
- Looting and burglary in Sousse town centre, supermarkets, shops, police stations.
- Gunfire continues after Ben Ali’s flight. What’s the matter?
- In the capital suburbs local groups began to form to protect facilities and shops.
- Listen to this letter sent to a friend: Do not trust anyone except the army. If you hear slogans like Allah Akbar or suchlike, do not go out. If you see a Clio Symbol car, step aside. They are our soldiers and you cannot stand a chance against them with your primitive weapons.
Nawfel carried on scrolling down the news lines. His facial expressions concealed under his cap, his unshaven face, and the way he sucked on his cigarette and etched abstract images in the floating smoke with his fidgety hands, all confirmed his belief that the army had turned against Ben Ali on the twelfth.
- Do you remember? Surely, it’s the army. They forced him to give a speech on the thirteenth and then coerced him into flight on the fourteenth. The army actually seized power, but some people were against it. Ben Ali’s family have been arrested. Surely, there will be retaliation. And Statement Number One will be declared to end everything. There is no doubt about that.
THE OGRE CAME OUT OF HIS CAVE
They were in the cybercafé when news of the escape of President Ben Ali went viral.
Nawfel jumped off his chair screaming:
- Allah Akbar! O God, Praise to You O God! Long Live Tunisia!
Ali’s head peered from behind the computer screen and stared at Nawfel with quizzing eyes:
- What’s going on?
- Ben Ali absconded. The news is on Al Jazeera Channel.
- Are you sure?
- Positive. Hey, it’s Al Jazeera, Ali, Al Jazeera Channel!
They immediately thought of going to Bab Bhar, the heart of the medina. They searched for online invitations to gather and celebrate, to carry white and red flags and sing freedom and peace.
But there was nothing. They were willing, like many others, to spend the night outside homes and shops. They were expecting a celebration that would make them forget all that had happened before: the dark nights, the footage and images of martyrs with yawning mouths, blasted heads, and mangled bodies laid carelessly on metal hospital beds.
Nawfel needn’t have clung so vehemently to the idea—the rule—the role of the army, and that night needn’t have ushered in a season of collective delirium that ended up with a bullet shattering his leg.
No one was able to celebrate Ben Ali’s abdication of power. No flags were waved that night. And no colourful fireworks adorned the sky of a homeland whose the people found themselves suddenly overwhelmed by freedom and emancipation.
The entire country swiftly shifted from a state of emergency guarded by Zine El Abidine’s police to another state of emergency the army wanted to supervise in collaboration with the Tunisian people who turned into a surrogate police force that was omnipresent, like God, and then all of a sudden melted away like ice.
The people’s bands stood up to dance on the ruins of an agonising system and protect neighbourhoods assailed by fear of the unknown, deploying all means affordable:
Rocks, clubs, daggers, yells, songs, phones, numbers, and patriotism.
No idea could possibly absorb or organise what had happened.
An ogre, with his gouged eye, had left his cave to follow the great tumult without guidance, unaware the hubbub was throbbing out of his guts.