Friday, April 19, 2024

Sidi Bouzid

Street scene: Regueb, Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia

I've been in Tunisia this week, thanks to an invitation from ATAC (Association Tunisienne de L’Action Culturelle), who initiate cultural actions for human rights in the face of some great challenges! Riadh Abidi and Nouha Hajji, who run the organisation, are incredibly committed to social justice and the role of culture in securing it: so this seemed an ideal place to offer a first preview screening of our SUPPLIANTS OF SYRIA film. So far, it's only fully accessible to Arabic-speaking audiences, as that's how far the subtitling process has got - but an Arabic-speaking audience is exactly what we have here, even though we are a long way from Syria and from Adana, at least physically. The cultural links between Syrian refugees and Tunisians are of course very strong, and are being made stronger by the response to the Gaza crisis across the Islamic world. What's more, the question of Fortress Europe is very real here, as in Turkey. On the day we screened the film, Giorgia Meloni was in Tunis for the fourth time this year, having "further discussions" around migration with President Saied. There's already a basic deal in place between Tunisia and the EU, akin to the (much larger) EU-Turkey deal, whereby Tunisia is paid to intercept migrants crossing the Mediterranean. The Tunisian government says it has prevented 21,000 crossings this year alone. Many of these migrants had already crossed the Sahara to get this far: they come from conflict or post-conflict zones like the DRC, Sierra Leone, Northern Nigeria and Senegal. 

But it was not just the section of the film about European exclusion of desperate people that struck a chord here. Sidi Bouzid, the city where we showed the film, was also the place where the Arab Spring began. It's not a very big city - it has fewer than 50,000 inhabitants - and that makes the reach of what happened here all the more extraordinary. On 17th December 2010, a 26 year old street trader called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the public street, burning to death. His self-immolation was an act of desperate protest against endemic corruption: his goods had been confiscated and he had been publicly humiliated by civic officials after he refused to bribe them. Bouazizi's actions led to a wave of further protests in the city and the surrounding areas, which the people of Sidi Bouzid, with great foresight, recorded on their phones and uploaded to social media. In particular, they recorded the authorities' use of violence against them: there were at least 20 further deaths. The protests spread across the country, and by January 14th 2011, President Ben Ali had been forced to flee the country. Not long after, further revolutionary actions began across the Arab World; including, of course, the outbreak of the ongoing conflicts in Syria.

So the question at the centre of Aeschylus's Suppliants, and of our SUPPLIANTS OF SYRIA, seemed incredibly immediate and intense at Wednesday's screening: "What is this thing they call democracy?" As David Wiles points out in the film, democracy is not necessarily compatible with human rights - indeed he suggests there may be a fundamental incompatibility between the two. If, as European and American governments like to suggest, the "representative" systems that they have in place serve to enact the rule of "the people", then what of the rights of other people who are by definition not part of the "rule" in that state? When "the people" rise up to claim their rights, which would seem to be a "democratic" endeavour, why does it so often lead to greater repression or to anarchy? More than a decade on, can any positive meaning be found in the tragic death of Mohamed Bouazizi?

I saw these images on a wall in Regueb, a smaller town in the Govenornate of Sid Bouzid, this morning. I may be wrong, but I think the man portrayed is Mohamed Bouazizi. 

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