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- Written by Eman Jueid
- Category: Culture
I ran to the window, and on a side street adjacent to downtown’s Avenue Bourguiba, I caught sight of a group of flag-clad Tunisian youths, running as police gave chase, yelling and firing off tear gas canisters in their wake. Avenue Bourguiba is the heart of downtown Tunis—the broad pedestrian boulevard spans from the Trans-African highway to the old city. Landmarks dot the street, ranging from the National Theater to the Ministry of the Interior. Most importantly, this symbolic vein of the city provided the pivotal backdrop in scenes of Tunisian jubilation, splashed across international media, at the rapid toppling of former President Ben Ali in a matter of days. “Oh, shit!” I remembered. Martyr’s Day!”
Without thinking twice, I grabbed my camera and raced down into the street. Fresh off the plane from Algeria, I was hesitant about taking photographs. I can always claim the “tourist” card, I thought, and pushed my way into the crowd. Turns out, I didn’t need the excuse. Control here operates very differently than Algeria and Morocco: rather than restricted access to visual information, symbolic spaces provide the un-crossable line.
By the time I reached the street, the main artery of downtown Tunis was already occupied by police vans, riot-gear clad cops, and—worryingly—men wearing ski-masks, brandishing clubs, batons and sticks. Onlookers watched nervously, huddled against walls and in doorways on either side of the avenue; shopkeepers shuttered windows and café owners stacked chairs and tables into hurried barricades. Protestors periodically advanced from side streets and met a police response of batons, screams, threats and (USA-supplied) tear-gas canisters. The razor-wire fence I noticed the day I arrived here, blocking the Interior Ministry, suddenly made sense.
In front of the National Theater and Place de la Liberation, tear-gas fumes looked like clouds at first glance. A man next to me started choking, grabbed my arm and led me into a hotel café—“I don’t care what News Agency you work for; they’re gassing everyone,” he told me. “And they just arrested that long-haird gawr (white man) in the Argentina jersey. Stay here for a while.” Inside, I asked him for his assessment of the clashes, and his response bursted with loaded language: “Celebrations are forbidden on Avenue Bourguiba. Why? Good question, isn’t it? You see that street? This is the symbolic heart of our nation; that is the people’s street!”
Half an hour later, I was back on the street, headed to my favorite sandwich shop, when a horde of baton-wielding police thundered into the alley. The proprietor yanked me inside and slammed down the aluminum gate as a tear-gas canister exploded nearby. The small space of the restaurant was crowded with around forty Tunisians, opening the windows and shouting their opinions on the scenes outside. A young woman next to me offered me her scarf, and we had a brief conversation between coughs—“I swear to God,” she cried. “WHY? This is some Ben Ali shit, sister! On Martyr’s Day! Avenue Bourguiba is the heart of this nation—it is our street!”
The streets belong to the people, and in particular—Avenue Bourguiba, the heart of the nation and the heart of a young revolution of which Tunisians are rightfully proud. Police crackdowns on a space that revolutionaries claimed for all struck many as a slap in the face—and on Martyr’s Day, no less. The memory of the 2011 Revolution is alive and well; echoed in everyday conversations and memorialized in preserved (and renewed graffiti) all over downtown Tunis. Ben Ali is gone, but the real problems of poverty and unemployment remain. And yet, the galvanizing spark of clashes that day were manifested in the highly symbolic terrain of people power.
By evening, all was calm in downtown. But if public space—so charged with civic pride and revolutionary memory—remains circumscribed by the State, it would be hard to imagine Tunisian youth accepting any semblance of the barriers they bravely toppled barely a year ago.By Amanda Rogers, Aslan Media Contributing Writer
*Photo Credit: Courtesy of the author
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