Published in NY Times.
IT is Friday, Jan. 14, in downtown Tunis. In the streets, we shout “No!” — a million tongues together against the dictatorial, 23-year-long government of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Tear gas, bullets and death fly above us. We are ambushed at the Barcelona metro station, one of the city’s main transit hubs, and attacked with tear gas. I cover myself with a black scarf as I run toward Bourguiba Avenue, which tourists call the Tunisian Champs-Élysées. There, we are met with sticks and rifles.
Counting our every breath, we dodge bullets for many more blocks until we run into a wall of police officers in civilian clothing. They order us brusquely into a nearby metro station, pile us into trains and take up positions at each end. An old man near me who had left his home to buy bread and got caught up in the demonstration is gasping. I tear my scarf in two and give him half. I would love to ask him what he thinks of the protests against the government, but everyone is struggling against the tear gas.
That night, the militias come out. In my apartment building, we hear bullets ringing overhead. My wife is shaking. Word of raids and rapes has begun to be broadcast on the radio and on the streets. She asks me, as she looks at our 18-month-old son, Haroun, playing and laughing to himself: “What will we do if they attack us? Please don’t defend me; take care of Haroun.” I reply, “Be quiet, please, just be quiet.”
She says, “I don’t want Haroun to live if we’re dead.” I go out to see if our neighbors and I can take shifts standing guard outside our building. I take a small kitchen knife and a metal rod. I ring my neighbors’ bell. No answer; either they’re not at home or they are panicked. I shout from the bottom of the building’s staircase, “Neighbors, get down and let us prepare ourselves!” No answer.
I know that the building is half-empty and that its front gate is unlocked. Worse, on the top floor lives a man who I suspect is a member of a militia loyal to President Ben Ali’s ruling party.
I return to our apartment. My wife says, “No one’s there, of course.” I try to calm her down, but Haroun is a rambunctious child and we can’t explain a state of emergency to him. My brother, who is in the Tunisian Army, phones and asks me how we are doing, telling me that his wife is also besieged in the area where he is posted. My brother fails to reassure us.
Tunisian television is making me nervous. Another politician is announcing, slowly, that he is taking power, and he interrupts himself, saying, “By God Almighty, protect yourselves.” A civilized nation is announcing its independence from keeping the peace. I can’t stay here and keep looking my wife in the eye; I’m panicking too. I once lived in violent Algeria, and decide to rely on my experience there. So I grab an ax, and kiss my wife on her forehead. I take my place on the building’s steps, intoning, “Either kill or be killed.” The night plods along, heavy, murderous.
I hear that the militias are driving around in requisitioned ambulances. They are transforming the vehicles from carriers of mercy to carriers of death. The country has suddenly become the setting for a Hollywood gangster movie, its peaceful, enlightened people the extras. Shots ring out, and I hide behind a wall. The sounds of an army helicopter come from far away. I slip back into my apartment to see my wife’s petrified, questioning face. Haroun is dancing joyfully.
I try to reassure her, telling her that I am all right and that the army is protecting us with its helicopters. Haroun comes up to me and shows me his toy, a small police car. He shocks me by saying, “Sheriff?” — referring to a character from the animated movie “Cars.” I say, “Yes, yes, my son,” and kiss him absentmindedly on his head. I wonder, is the era of the sheriff over?
I go back out to my sentry post and decide to take refuge in the Koran. But I forget the opening section, the Fatiha, with its prayers for God’s guidance; I stumble over the lines, jumbling their order. I think of writing, and feel for my pencil in my coat pocket. I don’t have any paper other than my address book, so I open it in the dark, wanting to write down anything.
Suddenly, bullets ricochet all around me. I flatten myself on the ground. I wait to hear the helicopter again before I return inside to reassure my family and recharge my energy with Haroun’s enthusiasm. I think of myself as the protagonist of Paul Auster’s “Man in the Dark,” who describes his situation in this way: “I am alone in the dark, turning the world around in my head.” I grab the iron rod to defend my home and my dream.
On Saturday morning we venture into the street to find our neighborhood filled with unfamiliar faces. The shopping center near my home has been looted. I go with my wife and son to a relative’s house to coordinate our neighborhood security. With sticks and stones, we take control of the neighborhood. We spend that night shooing away strangers and strange cars. In the morning we roam the city looking for bread and milk for our children. There is no milk to be found. Gradually, city residents become used to the state of emergency and the curfew, and begin to enjoy the free time they now have, especially since they are able to speak freely, able to openly curse and ridicule Mr. Ben Ali and his corrupt family.
On Monday we are told that a new “unity” government has formed. When Tunisians see that some members of the old regime have been named to cabinet posts, there is a new wave of disturbances, and people start saying that the revolution has been stolen from them. On Tuesday, young people again take to the streets, demanding the dissolution of Mr. Ben Ali’s party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally party, which has ruled Tunisia since independence in 1956. Others argue that this risks being a repeat of the purges of members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party in Iraq, which contributed to the insurgency there. While I agree that it may be impossible to dissolve the party without sending the country into chaos, I think we have no choice but to try.
There are also demonstrations at the offices of the largest opposition group over its complicity with the old regime in the new government. By the end of the day at least five ministers have stepped down, and nobody knows what will come next. As for myself, I feel an overwhelming happiness that I will now be able to write freely. A year and a half ago, one of my novels, which describes life under oppression, was performed as a play at a cultural center here. Those of us involved were monitored constantly by the police; none of the journalists in attendance wrote reviews.
That is why I support the revolution and, like so many of the young people, worry that it will be stolen from us by the traitors, thieves and killers who have ruled us for far too long.