The Star, Sunday March 13, 2011
FRUIT SELLER IGNITES A REVOLUTION
The Star visits the family and village of Mohamed Bouazizi, a poor fruit seller who set himself on fire to protest against official harassment. The incident triggered a revolution in Tunisia and also sparked off protests against autocratic governments in several Arab countries. IT was early Friday, just before 8am. After picking olives from a farm, Manuobya looked in on her 26-year-old son Mohamed Bouazizi, who was still asleep and something stirred inside her.
“I felt a kind of love and affection that I never felt before. I said to myself: ‘Mohamed, you are so tired. May God give you a car and another job,’” she tells Sunday Star during an interview at her home in a village near Sidi Bouzid. Just the night before, Manuobya recounts, Mohamed Bouazizi, who sold fruits from a push cart, was talking about working harder to earn enough to buy a pick-up truck which would make it easier for him to transport his produce. And that night, he gave his mother quite a lot of cash.
“He told me: ‘You know, mother, I’ve never got so much money as I have this week.’ Painful reminder: Manuobya caressing a giant poster of her late son Mohamed Bouazizi who has become a hero in his country and the Arab world.
“He told his sister Leila: ‘If you succeed in school, I will pay for your education.’ “He said to his brothers: ‘If you do well, I will buy you what you want,’” Manuobya relates, looking both sad and proud at the same time as she talks about Mohamed Bouazizi. Her son, she remembers, was in such good spirits that Thursday night. And he was teasing, playing and laughing with his eight-year-old half-brother Ziyad a lot more than usual before they went to sleep.
Manuobya says she even ticked them off for making “so much noise” for fear it might disturb the neighbours. Before he went to bed, Mohamed Bouazizi told his mother of his plans for the next few days.
Where it all started: A view of the Government building in Sidi Bouzid where Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight on Dec 17. He said he was getting nicer fruits and would work on Friday and Saturday, and rest on Sunday to go to Sfax (a town in Tunisia) to see his elder brother Salem. But a few hours later, things changed forever for Mohamed Bouazizi, his family and Tunisia.
On that fateful Friday of Dec 17, after Mohamed Bouazizi had woken up, dressed and gone to his usual spot in the small of town of Sidi Bouzid to sell fruits from his cart, a municipal inspector, Faida Hamdi, and her three aides came after him.
Manuobya says Mohamed Bouazizi was the happy sort but the “police and the government always want money from him and won’t let him do his job”. “They say he is selling fruits illegally. They want a rasuah (bribe) from him, so he is always fighting to do his job,” Manoubya elaborates. When Mohamed Bouazizi refused to pay the bribe, Faida and her aides tried to seize the fruits. He then phoned his uncle, who is also his stepfather, for help.
But this angered the municipal officers even more. “Faida told him that she would leave the other fruit sellers alone but not him and that she would come after him every day. “She grabbed the fruits but when she wanted to remove the weighing scales, Mohamed Bouazizi wouldn’t let her because the scales were not his.
“That was when Faiza slapped him on the face, spat at him and said terrible things about his dead father,” relates Manuobya, who heard details of the incident from eye witnesses, including her son’s friends. She believes the public humiliation – being slapped and spat on by a woman who also insulted his late father – was too much for her son to bear.
“He was so shocked and utterly humiliated. It was so shameful and, to him, a loss of dignity.” When Mohamed Bouazizi, who wanted to seek justice, knocked on the municipal office door, the people there would not entertain him. “Nobody would listen,” his grief-stricken mother says.
That was when Mohamed Bouazizi made his desperate and last cry for help. He drenched himself with petrol and then lit himself up – right in front of the government building. People rushed to douse the flames with their jackets, and someone even grabbed a fire hydrant but found it empty. It was too late.
Within seconds, Mohamed Bouazizi was charred but still alive. And that was how his stepfather Omar found him. “I couldn’t recognise him because he was totally burnt. Then he uttered the Kalimah Shahadah (a Muslim declaration of faith). “And I knew from the voice that it was Mohamed Bouazizi.
Those were the last words he spoke,” says Omar, adding that both of them were supposed to have gone for Friday prayers that day. Mohamed Bouazizi was rushed from one hospital to another because they could not treat the severe burns. He lived on for another 18 days and died on Jan 4.
By this time, news of what had happened to the poor fruit seller who just wanted to make a living spread through Tunisia like wildfire. His town, Sidi Bouzid, was the first to rise up. Noha Farah left her children at home and went to the government building every day to protest and shout for change and for the president to quit. She says she knew Mohamed Bouazizi personally.
“I always bought fruits from him. He was a very nice person. I cried when I saw what had happened,” she shares. Through Facebook and Twitter, word spread and the protests grew all over Tunisia, shocking the world. Here was Tunisia– an educated, moderate and stable country.
Yet its people, fed up with poverty, unemployment and a rotten corrupt system, spontaneously rose up to kick out their leader of 23 years, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. They wanted to reform their government which made it tough for people like Mohamed Bouazizi to make a living. And soon, the Tunisian revolution caught on in other Arab countries.
Egypt managed to chuck out its strongman Hosni Mubarak who ruled the country with an iron fist for 30 years. Libya is still in the process of trying to oust its leader of 41 years, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
The spark for change has also been lit in Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Iraq and even Saudi Arabia. And although Manuobya wishes every night that Mohamed Bouazizi’s death is just a bad dream because she misses him dreadfully, she believes what he did was for a greater good. “It is unbelievable what has happened. I thank God that things are better for all of Tunisia. I’m happy that He has opened the door for a lot of Arab countries.
Freedom is a good thing,” she adds. Manuobya followed the events in Egypt closely until Mubarak fell and her focus now is on what is happening in neighbouring Libya. She wants the “evil” Gaddafi who has killed too many of his people to be replaced. “God help Libya,” she says.
A neighbour, Alfiyah, tells how women, including strangers, drop by to visit Manuobya from time to time and offer words of comfort because they know how painful it is to lose a child. “The women say ‘thank you for your son and for changing Tunisia’. The situation in Tunisia is still not all that we have hoped for but it is still early days yet,” she adds. Noha Farah, however, feels something is still missing. “We are happy but our happiness will not be complete until the Libyan revolution ends and the people there are also free,” she says.
Overnight, Mohamed Bouazizi has become a hero in his town, country and the Arab world. Muhammad Han Zuli, 31, who speaks flawless English and lives in Sidi Bouzid, has tremendous respect for the fruit seller who triggered off a revolution. “He gave us the best things in the world – freedom and democracy.”