Saturday, January 15, 2011

Kaman wa kaman

I'm going to try the blog thing once again although I realize this is, by now, a technological antique. But since only a small number of people are going to read it (friends and few colleagues although some of you friends have been with me since around 1970) I'm guessing that's ok. Like so many other people around the world I've been energized by events in Tunisia and I seem to have things to say that otherwise aren't being said. And a few of you have even been kind enough (or foolish enough) to ask me what I thought about current events. So I'll begin with Tunisia and over the next several months while I'm in Cairo I'll comment, occasionally, on other things.

Three things really stand out in my mind about the last several week's events in Tunisia. The first is how these events should really put the endless and ultimately not very enlightening debate about suicide bombing in a completely different light. Remember the questions and the answers (sometimes that came before the questions): does Islam condone suicide? Do Arabs or Muslims think life is cheaper than other people? And on and on. I haven't heard anyone condemning Muhammad Bouazizi, the distraught and despairing college graduate whose vegetable stand was confiscated, for setting himself on fire. Nor have I heard anybody argue that he should have strapped a bomb to himself and attacked Ben Ali (or Sarah Palin or Benjamin Netanyahu). Nor have I heard anyone say he was just a worthless vendor (although this I suspect some people did say behind closed doors in various Tunisian ministries) whose life didn't matter. What seems to have happened was that this terrifying and terrible act caught people's consciences in some profound way (although that might not always be the case) and made it plain just how unbearable the situation in Tunisia had become. I don't know what anybody else thought but I found the picture of Ben Ali blankly visiting Bouazizi who was then dying in (one hopes) a haze of drug-induced unconsciousness nearly unbearable.

Does this mean that more people should immolate themselves? I don't think so and given what an intensely painful way it is to die, as the nerve endings and blood vessels decay in shock (if you haven't read Young Men and Fire by Norman McLean this may be the time to do it) I certainly hope not. But it does suggest how intensely valuable human life is and is seen to be in contemporary Tunisia.

Second, although there has been some talk about the repressive character of the regime it simply is worth noting that, long before the Islamist movement had been reborn and then crushed, the Bourguiba government drowned a trade union general strike in blood in 1978 for daring to oppose the regime's liberal planning agenda.

Third, for all the talk of twitter and facebook (and facebook seems undeniably to have played a role) perhaps we need to re-read all that literature on "the crowd". From George Rude to Ervand Abrahamian historians and sociologists used to pay attention to how human beings came together in large numbers. Can the new technology help? Probably it can. Is it decisive? Probably not. When the new technology was the broadside and the coffeeshop in 18th century London and Paris, people managed to "swarm" without a single keyboard in sight. Images help, of course, but they help because--even if only for a moment--we can imagine ourselves like those who are the victims of arbitrary repression and because--if even for only a moment--we can imagine ourselves as powerful enough to end it. The new technology may make imagining easier but it's not what makes it possible.

I haven't spent a lot of time in Tunis but I do know the downtown area somewhat and a small portion of the interior. Avenue Bourguiba is a broad boulevard where people go, especially in spring and fall, to stroll. It's lined with little kiosks and men (as well as women) often purchase jasmine blossoms to wear while walking between the Bab al-Bahr (the somewhat misnamed "Sea Gate" since it marks the direction of the sea from the Old City including the ancient mosque of Zitouna but is not anywhere near the water) and the terminal for the port (La Goulette or the "Gullet"). That end of the Boulevard is also the location of the Interior Ministry building which has, certainly for the last two decades, been literally nearly unapproachable. In the tumult of the past couple of days the entire broad street was overwhelmed with people and the police held a narrow cordon around the Ministry building. The president has left and the Prime Minister now seems intent on taking his place, although he claims it will only be "temporary." During the day it was, of course, night in Tunis and the government declared a state of emergency. Whether the troops will fire on people or, as has happened occasionally in the past few days, fraternize with them remains to be seen. There have been striking images of police saluting the corteges carrying the dead to funerals and protestors and security agents in full motorcycle regalia embracing on the street. There have also been images of police wielding batons on defenseless demonstrators and snipers shooting into the crowds. Tunisia has a relatively high literacy rate (albeit significantly lower for women than for men) which is probably a fairly accurate reflection of the reality. It's also a very urban country and it has a fairly politicized and even liberal population in many ways. It was, in peculiarly strange mirror of France, at once the most "Liberal" and the most repressive of the Arab police states. The official and public media were nearly unreadable--almost like what you would expect to find in North Korea--with their thin and treacly accounts of the wonderful things the President was doing. Tunisians in private conversation and writing, especially from France, were of course quite different. So now the real country and the formal country will have to look at each other tomorrow in the daylight.

1 comment:

Dick Wesley said...

Ellis: thank you so much for your insightful comments about events in Egypt. Be safe.Dick Wesley